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'Impro is the most dynamic, funny, wise, practical and provocative book 
on theatre craft that I have ever read' (James Roose-Evans). 

Keith Johnstone's involvement with the theatre began when George 
Devme and Tony Richardson, artistic directors of the Royal Court 
Theatre, commissioned a play from him. This was in 1956. A few years 
later he was himself Associate Artistic Director, working as a play- 
reader and director, in particular helping to run the Writers' Group. 
The improvisatory techniques and exercises evolved there to foster 
spontaneity and narrative skills were developed further in the actors' 
studio, then in demonstrations to schools and colleges and ultimately ' 
in the founding of a company of performers, called The Theatre 

Divided into four sections, *Status', 'Spontaneity', 'Narrative Skills' 
and 'Masks and Trance', arranged more or less in the order a group 
might approach them, the book sets out the specific techniques and 
exercises which Johnstone has himself found most useful and most 
stimulating. The result is both an ideas book and a fascinating explora- 
tion of the nature of spontaneous creativity. 

'The book's incredible achievement is its success in making improvisa- 
tion re-live on the page . . . Get Mr Johnstone's fascinating manual and 
I promise you that if you open at the first: page and begin to read you 
will not put it down until the final page.' (Yorkshire Post) 

'He suggests a hundred practical techniques for encouraging spon- 
taneity and originality by catching the subconscious unawares. But what 
makes the book such fun is the teacher's wit. Here is an inexhaustible 
supply of zany suggestions for unfreezing the petrified imagination. , 
(Daily Telegraph) 

The from cover shows a moment front The Defeat of Gianr Big Nose, an 
improvised children's play presented by Keith Johnstone*$ Loose Moose 
Theatre Company in Calgary, Alberta. Photo by Deborah A. lozzu 

Other books in ihis series 

Clive Barker 

Jean Benedetti 


Peter Brook 


Tony Coult and Baz Kershaw 
The Welfare State Handbook 

Jerzy Grotowski 


John Hodgson and Ernest Richards 

Constantin Stanislavski 


Improvisation and the Theatre 

With an Introduction by 



First published in paperback in 1981 by Eyre Methuen Ltd. 
Reprinted 1982, rg8s, rgSs, 1987 

Reprinted in 1989 by Methuen Drama^ 

Michelin House, 81 Fulham Road, London SW3 6RB 

Originally published in hardback by Faber and Faber Ltd in zg 79 

Corrected for this edition by the author 

Copyright © J979, 1981 by Keith Johnstone 

Introduction © 7979 by Irving Wardle 

Printed in Great Britain by 

Hazell Watson & Viney Limited 

Member of BPCC Limited 

Aylesbury, Bucks, England 

ISBN 0413 46430 x 




If teachers were honoured in the British theatre along- 
side directors, designers, and playwrights, Keith Johnstone would be 
as familiar a name as are those of John Dexter, Jocelyn Herbert, 
Edward Bond and the other young talents who were drawn to the 
great lodestone of the Royal Court Theatre in the late 1950s. As head 
of the Court's script department, Johnstone played a crucial part in 
the development of the 'writers' theatre', but to the general public he 
was known only as the author of occasional and less than triumphant 
Court plays like Brixham Regatta and Performing Giant. As he 
recounts in this book, he started as a writer who lost the ability to 
write, and then ran into the same melancholy impasse again when he 
turned to directing. 
What follows is the story of his escape. 

I first met Johnstone shortly after he had joined the Court as a 
ios-a-script play-reader, and he struck me then as a revolutionary 
idealist looking around for a guillotine. He saw corruption every- 
where. John Arden, a fellow play-reader at that time, recalls him as 
'George Devine's subsidised extremist, or Keeper of the King's 
Conscience'. The Court then set up its Writers' Group and Actors' 
Studio, run by Johnstone and William Gaskill, and attended by 
Arden, Ann Jellicoe and other writers of the Court's first wave. This 
was the turning point. 'Keith', Gaskill says, 'started to teach his own 
particular style of improvisation, much of it based on fairy stories, 
word associations, free associations, intuitive responses, and later he 
taught mask work as well. All his work has been to encourage the 
rediscovery of the imaginative response in the adult; the refinding of 
the power of the child's creativity. Blake is his prophet and Edward 
Bond his pupil.' 

Johnstone's all-important first move was to banish aimless dis- 
cussion and transform the meetings to enactment sessions; it was 
what happened that mattered, not what anybody said about it. 'It is 
hard now to remember how fresh this idea was in 1958,' Ann Jellicoe 
says, 'but it chimed in with my own way of thinking.' Other members 
were Arnold Wesker, Wole Soyinka, and David Cregan as well as 


Bond who now acknowledges Johnstone as a 'catalyst who made our 
experience malleable by ourselves'. As an example, he cites an exercise 
in blindness which he later incorporated in his play Lear; and one can 
pile up examples from Arden, Jellicoe, and Wesker of episodes or 
whole plays deriving from the group's work. For Cregan, Johnstone 
'knew how to unlock Dionysus': which came to the same thing as 
learning how to unlock himself. 

From such examples one can form some idea of the special place 
that teaching occupied in Devine's Royal Court; and how, in John- 
stone's case, it was the means by which he liberated himself in the 
act of liberating others. He now hands over his hard-won bunch of 
keys to the general reader. This book is the fruit of twenty years' 
patient and original work; a wise, practical, and hilariously funny 
guide to imaginative survival. For anyone of the 'artist type' who has 
shared the author's experience of seeing his gift apparently curl up 
and die, it is essential reading. 

One of Johnstone's plays is about an impotent old recluse, the 
master of a desolate castle, who has had the foresight to stock his 
deep-freeze with sperm. There is a power-cut and one of the sperm 
escapes into a goldfish bowl and then into the moat where it grows to 
giant size and proceeds to a whale of a life on the high seas. 

That, in a nut-shell, is the Johnstone doctrine. You are not imagina- 
tively impotent until you are dead; you are only frozen up. Switch off 
the no-saying intellect and welcome the unconscious as a friend: it 
will lead you to places you never dreamed of, and produce results 
more 'original' than anything you could achieve by aiming at origin- 

Open the book at any of the exercises and you will see how the 
unconscious delivers the goods. Here arc a group of hippopotamuses 
knitting pullovers from barbed wire, and a patient suffering from 
woodworm who infects the doctor's furniture. There are poems tran- 
scribed from thin air, masked actors magicked back to childhood, 
Victorian melodrama played in extempore verse. At the point where 
rational narrative would come to a stop, Johnstone's stories carry on 
cheerfully into the unknown. If a desperate schoolmaster kills himself 
he will find a plenary session of the school governors awaiting him at 
the pearly gates. Or if our hero is swallowed by a monster, he will 
change into a heroic turd and soldier on to fresh adventures. 

I have seen none of this material in performance, either by students 
or by Johnstone's Theatre Machine company; and one of the book's 
achievements is its success in making improvisations re-live on the 


page. Like all great advocates of the unconscious, Johnstone is a 
sturdy rationalist. He brings a keen intellect, nourished on anthro- 
pology and psychology, to the task of demolishing intellectualism in 
the theatre. And where no technical vocabulary exists, he develops 
his own down-to-earth shorthand to give a simple name to the 
indescribable. In rediscovering the imaginative world of childhood, 
he has re-examined the structural elements that bind that world 
together. What is a story? What makes people laugh? What relation- 
ships hold an audience's interest, and why? How does an improviser 
think up what comes next? Is conflict dramatically necessary? (The 
answer is No.) 

To these and other fundamental questions the book returns un- 
expected and invariably useful answers. Answers that extend theatre 
into the transactions of everyday life. One's first impulse on reading 
about these actors' games is to go and try them out on the kids, or to 
have a go yourself. Like this. 

From anthills in the north 

I come with wand in hand 

to slay all people there 

that I could understand. 

At last one heap was left 

Untamed by all my foes 

until I caught the bees 

and dealt them mighty blows. 
That was a nonstop poem written in fifty seconds flat. It may not 
be much, but it is more than I have ever got from any other text-book 
on the imagination. The difference is that Johnstone's analysis is not 
concerned with results, but with showing you how to do it; and his 
work ranks as a pioneer contribution to the exceedingly sparse litera- 
ture of comic theory from which comic practitioners really have some- 
thing to learn. It certainly has more to offer than Meredith, Bergson, 
or Freud, to whom the suicidal hero of Heathcote Williams's Hancock's 
Last Half Hour turns in his time of need; dipping hopefully into 
Jokes and their Connection with the Unconscious, and then dropping the 
book with the despairing cry, 'How would he do second house at the 
Glasgow Empire?' If Hancock had picked up this book, there might 
have been a happy ending. 


Notes on Myself 

As I grew up, everything started getting grey and dull. 
I could still remember the amazing intensity of the world I'd lived in 
as a child, but I thought the dulling of perception was an inevitable 
consequence of age — just as the lens of the eye is bound gradually to 
dim. I didn't understand that clarity is in the mind. 

I've since found tricks that can make the world blaze up again in 
about fifteen seconds, and the effects last for hours. For example, if I 
have a group of students who are feeling fairly safe and comfortable 
with each other, I get them to pace about the room shouting out the 
wrong name for everything that their eyes light on. Maybe there's 
time to shout out ten wrong names before I stop them. Then I ask 
whether other people look larger or smaller — almost everyone sees 
people as different sizes, mostly as smaller. 'Do the outlines look 
sharper or more blurred?' I ask, and everyone agrees that the outlines 
are many times sharper. 'What about the colours?' Everyone agrees 
there's far more colour, and that the colours are more intense. Often 
the size and shape of the room will seem to have changed, too. The 
students are amazed that such a strong transformation can be effected 
by such primitive means — and especially that the effects last so long. 
I tell them that they only have to think about the exercise for the 
effects to appear again. 

My own rediscovery of the visionary world took longer. At a time 
when I seemed to have lost all my talents as a creative artist I was driven 
to investigate my mental images. I started with the hypnagogic ones — 
the pictures that appear to many people at the threshold of sleep. 
They interest me because they didn't appear in any predictable 
sequence; I was interested in their spontaneity. 

It's not easy to observe hypnagogic images, because once you see 
one and think 'There !' you wake up a little and the image disappears. 
You have to attend to the images without verbalising about them, so I 
learned to 'hold the mind still' like a hunter waiting in a forest. 

One afternoon I was lying on my bed and investigating the effects 
of anxiety on the musculature (how do you spend your afternoons?). I 
relaxing myself and conjuring up horrific images. I had recalled 


an eye operation I'd had under local anaesthetic, when suddenly I 
thought of attending to my mental images just as I had to the hypna- 
gogic ones. The effect was astounding. They had all sorts of detail 
that I hadn't known about, and that I certainly hadn't chosen to be 
there. The surgeons' faces were distorted, their masks were thrusting 
out as if there were snouts beneath them! The effect was so interesting 
that I persisted. I thought of a house, and attended to the image and 
saw the doors and windows bricked in, but the chimney still smoking 
(a symbol for my inhibited state at the time?). I thought of another 
house and saw a terrifying figure in the doorway. I looked in the 
windows and saw strange rooms in amazing detail. 

When you ask people to think of an image, their eyes often move in a 
particular direction, often up and to the side. I was placing my 
mental images upwards and to the right— that's the space in which I 
'thought' of them. When I attended to them they moved into the 
'front' of my mind. Obviously, at some time in my childhood my 
mental images had frightened me, and I'd displaced them, I'd trained 
myself not to look at them. When I had an image I knew what was 
there, so I didn't need to look at it— that's how I deluded myself that 
my creativity was under my own control. 

After a lot of practice at attending to the images I conjured up, I 
belatedly thought of attending to the reality around me. Then the 
deadness and greyness immediately sloughed off— yet I'd thought I'd 
never move through a visionary world again, that I'd lost it. In my 
case it was largely my interest in art that had destroyed any life m the 
world around me. I'd learned perspective, and about balance, and 
composition. It was as if I'd learned to redesign everything, to reshape 
it so that I saw what ought to be there, which of course is much inferior 
to what is there. The dullness was not an inevitable consequence of 
age, but of education. 1 


At about the age of nine I decided never to believe any- 
thing because it was convenient. I began reversing every statement to 
see if the opposite was also true. This is so much a habit with me that 
I hardly notice I'm doing it any more. As soon as you put a 'not' into 
an assertion, a whole range of other possibilities opens out-especially 
in drama, where everything is supposition anyway. When I began 
teaching, it was very natural for me to reverse everything my own 
teachers had done. I got my actors to make faces, insult each other, 
always to leap before they looked, to scream and shout and misbehave 

in all sorts of ingenious ways. It was like having a whole tradition of 
improvisation teaching behind me. In a normal education everything 
is designed to suppress spontaneity, but I wanted to develop it. 


I made a two-minute film for a TV programme. It was 
all in one shot, no cuts. Everyone who saw it roared with laughter. 
There were people rolling on the cutting-room floor, holding their 
sides. Once they'd recovered, they'd say 'No, no, it's very funny but 
we can't show thatV 

The film showed three misshapen but gleeful cripples who were 
leaping about and hugging each other. The camera panned slightly to 
reveal that they were hiding around a corner and waiting for a normal 
person who was approaching. When he drew level, the cripples leaped 
on him, and bashed him to pulp with long balloons. Then they helped 
him up, as battered and twisted as they were, and they shook hands 
with him, and the four of them waited for the next person. 

A Psychotic Girl 

I once had a close rapport with a teenager who seemed 
'mad' when she was with other people, but relatively normal when she 
was with me. I treated her rather as I would a Mask (see Masks, page 
143)— that is to say, I was gentle, and I didn't try to impose my reality 
on her. One thing that amazed me was her perceptiveness about other 
people — it was as if she was a body-language expert. She described 
things about them which she read from their movement and postures 
that I later found to be true, although this was at the beginning of a 
summer school and none of us had ever met before. 

I'm remembering her now because of an interaction she had with a 
very gentle, motherly schoolteacher. I had to leave for a few minutes, 
so I gave the teenager my watch and said she could use it to see I was 
away only a very short time, and that the schoolteacher would look 
after her. We were in a beautiful garden (where the teenager had just 
seen God) and the teacher picked a flower and said: 'Look at the 
pretty flower, Betty.' 

Betty, filled with spiritual radiance, said, 'All the flowers are 

'Ah,' said the teacher, blocking her, 'but this flower is especially 

Betty rolled on the ground screaming, and it took a while to calm 


her. Nobody seemed to notice that she was screaming 'Can't you see? 
Can't you see !' 

In the gentlest possible way, this teacher had been very violent. 
She was insisting on categorising, and on selecting. Actually it is crazy 
to insist that one flower is especially beautiful in a whole garden of 
flowers, but the teacher is allowed to do this, and is not perceived by 
sane people as violent. Grown-ups are expected to distort the per- 
ceptions of the child in this way. Since then I've noticed such be- 
haviour constantly, but it took the mad girl to open my eyes to it. 

'Education' as a Substance 

People think of good and bad teachers as engaged in 
the same activity, as if education was a substance, and that bad teachers 
supply a little of the substance, and good teachers supply a lot. This 
makes it difficult to understand that education can be a destructive 
process, and that bad teachers are wrecking talent, and that good and 
bad teachers are engaged in opposite activities. (I saw a teacher relax 
his students on the floor, and then test for relaxation by lifting their 
feet eighteen inches into the air and dropping their heels on the 

Growing Up 

As I grew up I began to feel uncomfortable. I had to 
use conscious effort to 'stand up straight'. I thought that adults were 
superior to children, and that the problems that worried me would 
gradually correct themselves. It was very upsetting to realise that if I 
was going to change for the better then I'd have to do it myself. 

I found I had some severe speech defects, worse than other people's 
(I was eventually treated at a speech hospital). I began to understand 
that there really was something wrong with my body, I began to see 
myself as crippled in the use of myself (just as a great violinist would 
play better on a cheap violin than I would on a Strad). My breathing 
was inhibited, my voice and posture were wrecked, something was 
seriously wrong with my imagination— it was becoming difficult actu- 
ally to get ideas. How could this have happened when the state had 
spent so much money educating me? 

Other people seemed to have no insight into my problems. All my 
teachers cared about was whether I was a winner. I wanted to stand 
like Gary Cooper, and to be confident, and to know how to send the 
soup back when it was cold without making the waiter feel obliged to 
spit in it. I'd left school with worse posture, and a worse voice, with 

worse movement and far less spontaneity than when I'd entered it. 
Could teaching have had a negative effect? 


One day, when I was eighteen, I was reading a book 
and I began to weep. I was astounded. I'd had no idea that literature 
could affect me in such a way. If I'd have wept over a poem in class 
the teacher would have been appalled. I realised that my school had 
been teaching me not to respond. 

(In some universities students unconsciously learn to copy the 
physical attitudes of their professors, leaning back away from the play 
or film they're watching, and crossing their arms tighdy, and tilting 
their heads back. Such postures help them to feel less 'involved', less 
'subjective'. The response of untutored people is infinitely superior.) 


I tried to resist my schooling, but I accepted the idea 
that my intelligence was the most important part of me. I tried to be 
clever in everything I did. The damage was greatest in areas where my 
interests and the school's seemed to coincide : in writing, for example 
(I wrote and rewrote, and lost all my fluency). I forgot that inspiration 
isn't intellectual, that you don't have to be perfect. In the end I was 
reluctant to attempt anything for fear of failure, and my first thoughts 
never seemed good enough. Everything had to be corrected and 
brought into line. 

The spell broke when I was in my early twenties. I saw a perform- 
ance of Dovzhenko's Earth, a film which is a closed book for many 
people, but which threw me into a state of exaltation and confusion. 
There is a sequence in which the hero, Vassily, walks alone in the 
twilight. We know he's in danger, and we have just seen him com- 
forting his wife, who rolled her eyes like a frightened animal. There are 
shots of mist moving eerily on water, and silent horses stretching their 
necks, and corn-stooks against the dusky sky. Then, amazingly, 
peasants lying side by side, the men with their hands inside the 
women's blouses and motionless, with idiotic smiles on their faces as 
they stare at the twilight. Vassily, dressed in black, walks through the 
Chagall village, and the dust curls up in little clouds around his feet 
and he is dark against the moonlit road, and he is filled with the same 
ecstasy as the peasants. He walks and walks and the film cuts and cuts 
until he walks out of frame. Then the camera moves back, and we see 
stop. The fact that he walks for so long, and that the image is so 


beautiful, linked up with my own experience of being alone in the 
twilight— the gap between the worlds. Then Vassily walks again, but 
after a short time he begins to dance, and the dance is skilled, and like 
an act of thanksgiving. The dust swirls around his feet, so that he's 
like an Indian god, like Siva— and with the man dancing alone in the 
clouds of dust something unlocked in me. In one moment I knew 
that the valuing of men by their intelligence is crazy, that the peasants 
watching the night sky might feel more than I feel, that the man who 
dances might be superior to myself— word-bound and unable to 
dance. From then on I noticed how warped many people of great 
intelligence are, and I began to value people for their actions, rather 
than their thoughts. 

Anthony Stirling 

I felt crippled, and 'unfit' for life, so I decided to 
become a teacher. I wanted more time to sort myself out, and I was 
convinced that the training college would teach me to speak clearly, 
and to stand naturally, and to be confident, and how to improve my 
teaching skills. Common sense assured me of this, but I was quite 
wrong. It was only by luck that I had a brilliant art teacher called 
Anthony Stirling, and then all my work stemmed from his example. 
It wasn't so much what he taught, as what he did. For the first time in 
my life I was in the hands of a great teacher. 

I'll describe the first lesson he gave us, which was unforgettable 
and completely disorientating. 

He treated us like a class of eight-year-olds, which I didn't like, 
but which I thought I understood— 'He's letting us know what it feels 
like to be on the receiving end,' I thought. 

He made us mix up a thick 'jammy' black paint and asked us to 
imagine a clown on a one wheeled bicycle who pedals through the 
paint, and on to our sheets of paper. 'Don't paint the clown,' he said, 
'paint the mark he leaves on your paper!' 

I was wanting to demonstrate my skill, because I'd always been 
'good at art', and I wanted him to know that I was a worthy student. 
This exercise annoyed me because how could I demonstrate my skill? 
I could paint the clown, but who cared about the tyre-marks? 

'He cycles on and off your paper,' said Stirling, 'and he does all sorts 
of tricks, so the lines he leaves on your paper are very interesting . . .' 

Everyone's paper was covered with a mess of black lines— except 
mine, since I'd tried to be original by mixing up a blue. Stirling was 
scathing about my inability to mix up a black, which irritated me. 

Then he asked us to put colours in all the shapes the clown had made. 
'What kind of colours?' 
'Any colours.' 

*Yeah . . . but ... er ... we don't know what colours to choose.' 

'Nice colours, nasty colours, whatever you like.' 

We decided to humour him. When my paper was coloured I found 
that the blue had disappeared, so I repainted the outlines black. 

'Johnstone's found the value of a strong outline,' said Stirling, which 
really annoyed me. I could see that everyone's paper was getting into 
a soggy mess, and that mine was no worse than anybody else's— but 
no better. 

'Put patterns on all the colours,' said Stirling. The man seemed to 
be an idiot. Was he teasing us? 
'What sort of patterns?' 
'Any patterns.' 

We couldn't seem to start. There were about ten of us, all strangers 
to each other, and in the hands of this madman. 
'We don't know what to do.' 
'Surely it's easy to think of patterns.' 

We wanted to get it right. 'What sort of patterns do you want?' 

'It's up to you.' He had to explain patiently to us that it really was 
our choice. I remember him asking us to think of our shapes as fields 
seen from the air if that helped, which it didn't. Somehow we finished 
the exercises, and wandered around looking at our daubs rather 
glumly, but Stirling seemed quite unperturbed. He went to a cupboard 
and took out armfuls of paintings and spread them around the floor, 
and it was the same exercise done by other students. The colours were 
so beautiful, and the patterns were so inventive — clearly they had 
been done by some advanced class. 'What a great idea,' I thought, 
'making us screw up in this way, and then letting us realise that there 
was something that we could learn, since the advanced students were 
so much better !' Maybe I exaggerate when I remember how beautiful 
the paintings were, but I was seeing them immediately after my fail- 
ure. Then I noticed that these little masterpieces were signed in very 
scrawly writing. 'Wait a minute,' I said, 'these are by young children!' 
They were all by eight-year-olds! It was just an exercise to encourage 
them to use the whole area of the paper, but they'd done it with such 
love and taste and care and sensitivity. I was speechless. Something 
happened to me in that moment from which I have never recovered. 
It was the final confirmation that my education had been a destructive 


Stirling believed that the art was 'in' the child, and that it wasn't 
something to be imposed by an adult. The teacher was not superior to 
the child, and should never demonstrate, and should not impose 
values: 'This is good, this is bad . . .' 

'But supposing a child wants to learn how to draw a tree?' 

'Send him out to look at one. Let him climb one. Let him touch it.' 

'But if he still can't draw one?' 

'Let him model it in clay.' 

The implication of Stirling's attitude was that the student should 
never experience failure. The teacher's skill lay in presenting ex- 
periences in such a way that the student was bound to succeed. 
Stirling recommended that we read the Too te Ching. It seems to me 
now that he was practically using it as his teaching manual. Here are 
some extracts: '. . . The sage keeps to the deed that consists in taking 

no action and practises the teaching that uses no words When 

his task is accomplished and his work done the people all say, "It 
happened to us naturally" .... I take no action and the people are 
transformed of themselves; I prefer stillness and the people are 
rectified of themselves; I am not meddlesome and the people prosper 
of themselves. I am free from desire and the people of themselves 
become simple like the uncarved block ... One who excels in employ- 
ing others humbles himself before them. This is known as the virtue 
of non-contention; this is known as making use of the efforts of 

others To know yet to think that one does not know is best 

The sage does not hoard. Having bestowed all he has on others, he 
has yet more; having given all he has to others, he is richer still. The 
way of heaven benefits and does not harm; the way of the sage is 
bountiful and does not contend.' (Translated by C. D. Lau, Penguin, 

Being a Teacher 

I chose to teach in Battersea, a working-class area that 
most new teachers avoided— but I'd been a postman there, and I 
loved the place. 

My new colleagues bewildered me. 'Never tell people you re a 
teacher!' they said. 'If they find you're a teacher in the pub, they'll 
all move away !' It was true ! I'd believed that teachers were respected 
figures, but in Battersea they were likely to be feared or hated. I liked 
my colleagues, but they had a colonist's attitude to the children; they 
referred to them as 'poor stock', and they disliked exactly those 
children I found most inventive. If a child is creative he's likely to be 
more difficult to control, but that isn't a reason for disliking him. My 

colleagues had a poor view of themselves : again and again I heard them 
say, 'Man among boys; boy among men' when describing their 
condition. I came to see that their unhappiness, and lack of accept- 
ance in the community, came from a feeling that they were irrelevant, 
or rather that the school was something middle class being forcibly 
imposed on to the working-class culture. Everyone seemed to accept 
that if you could educate one of these children you'd remove him 
away from his parents (which is what my education had done for me). 
Educated people were snobs, and many parents didn't want their 
children alienated from them. 

Like most new teachers, I was given the class no one else wanted. 
Mine was a mix of twenty-six 'average' eight-year-olds, and twenty 
'backward' ten-year-olds whom the school had written off as ineduc- 
able. Some of the ten-year-olds couldn't write their names after five 
years of schooling. I'm sure Professor Skinner could teach even 
pigeons to type out their names in a couple of weeks, so I couldn't 
believe that these children were really dull: it was more likely that 
they were putting up a resistance. One astounding thing was the way 
cowed and dead-looking children would suddenly brighten up and 
look intelligent when they weren't being asked to learn. When they 
were cleaning out the fish tank, they looked fine. When writing a 
sentence, they looked numb and defeated. 

Almost all teachers, even if they weren't very bright, got along 
reasonably well as schoolchildren, so presumably it's difficult for them 
to identify with the children who fail. My case was peculiar in that 
I'd apparently been exceptionally intelligent up to the age of eleven, 
winning all the prizes (which embarrassed me, since I thought they 
should be given to the dull children as compensation) and being 
teacher's pet, and so on. Then, spectacularly, I'd suddenly come bottom 
of the class— 'down among the dregs', as my headmaster described it. 
He never forgave me. I was puzzled too, but gradually I realised that 
I wouldn't work for people I didn't like. Over the years my work 
gradually improved, but I never fulfilled my promise. When I liked 
a particular teacher and won a prize, the head would say : 'Johnstone 
is taking this prize away from the boys who deserve it!' If you've 
been bottom of the class for years it gives you a different perspective : 
I was friends with boys who were failures, and nothing would induce 
me to write them off as 'useless' or 'ineducable'. My 'failure' was a 
survival tactic, and without it I would probably never have worked my 
way out of the trap that my education had set for me. I would have ended 
up with a lot more of my consciousness blocked off from me than now. 


I was determined that my classes shouldn't be dull, so I used to jump 
about and wave my arms, and generally stir things up— which is 
exciting, but bad for discipline. If you shove an inexperienced teacher 
into the toughest class, he either sinks or swims. However idealistic 
he is, he tends to clutch at traditional ways of enforcing discipline. 
My problem was to resist the pressures that would turn me into a 
conventional teacher. I had to establish a quite different relationship 
before I could hope to release the creativity that was so apparent in the 
children when they weren't thinking of themselves as 'being educated'. 

I didn't see why Stirling's ideas shouldn't apply to all areas, and in 
particular to writing: literacy was clearly of great importance, and 
anyway writing interested me, and I wanted to infect the children with 
enthusiasm. I tried getting them to send secret notes to each other, 
and write rude comments about me, and so on, but the results were 
nil. One day I took my typewriter and my art books into the class, and 
said I'd type out anything they wanted to write about the pictures. As 
an afterthought, I said I'd also type out their dreams— and suddenly 
they were actually wanting to write. I typed out everything exactly as 
they wrote it, including the spelling mistakes, until they caught me. 
Typing out spelling mistakes was a weird idea in the early fifties (and 
probably now)— but it worked. The pressure to get things right was 
coming from the children, not the teacher. I was amazed at the in- 
tensity of feeling and outrage the children expressed, and their 
determination to be correct, because no one would have dreamt that 
they cared. Even the illiterates were getting their friends to spell out 
every word for them. I scrapped the time-table, and for a month they 
wrote for hours every day. I had to force them out of the classroom to 
take breaks. When I hear that children only have an attention span of 
ten minutes, or whatever, I'm amazed. Ten minutes is the attention 
span of bored children, which is what they usually are in school- 
hence the misbehaviour. 

I was even more astounded by the quality of the things the children 
wrote. I'd never seen any examples of children's writing during my 
training; I thought it was a hoax (one of my colleagues must have 
smuggled a book of modern verse in!). By far the best work came from 
the 'ineducable' ten-year-olds. At the end of my first year the Div- 
isional Officer refused to end my probation. He'd found my class 
doing arithmetic with masks over their faces— they'd made them in 
art class and I didn't see why they shouldn't wear them. There was a 
cardboard tunnel he was supposed to crawl through (because the 
classroom was doubling as an igloo), and an imaginary hole in the 

floor that he refused to walk around. I'd stuck all the art paper to- 
gether and pinned it along the back wall, and when a child got bored 
he'd leave what he was doing and stick some more leaves on the burn- 
ing forest. 

My headmaster had discouraged my ambition to become a teacher : 
'You're not the right type,' he said, 'not the right type at all.' Now it 
looked as if I was going to be rejected officially. Fortunately the 
school was inspected, and Her Majesty's Inspector thought that my 
class were doing the most interesting work. I remember one incident 
that struck him as amazing: the children screaming out that there 
were only three chickens drawn on the blackboard, while I was 
insisting that there were five (two were still inside the hen-house). 
Then the children started scribbling furiously away, writing stories 
about chickens, and shouting out any words they wanted spelt on the 
blackboard. I shouldn't think half of them had ever seen a chicken, 
but it delighted the Inspector. 'You realise that they're trying to 
throw me out,' I said, and he fixed it so that I wasn't bothered again. 

Stirling's 'non-interference' worked in every area where I applied 
it: piano teaching for example. I worked with Marc Wilkinson, the 
composer (he became director of music at the National Theatre), and 
his tape recorder played the same sort of role that my typewriter had. 
He soon had a collection of tapes as surprising as the children's 
poems had been. I assembled a group of children by asking each 
teacher for the children he couldn't stand ; and although everyone was 
amazed at such a selection method, the group proved to be very 
talented, and they learned with amazing speed. After twenty minutes 
a boy hammered out a discordant march and the rest shouted, 'It's the 
Japanese soldiers from the film on Saturday!' Which it was. We 
invented many games — like one child making sounds for water and 
another putting the 'fish' in it. Sometimes we got them to feel ob- 
jects with their eyes shut, and got them to play what it felt like so that 
the others could guess. Other teachers were amazed by the enthus- 
iasm and talent shown by these 'dull' children. 

The Royal Court Theatre 

In 1956 the Royal Court Theatre was commissioning 
plays from established novelists (Nigel Dennis, Angus Wilson), and 
Lindsay Anderson suggested that they should stop playing safe and 
commission an unknown — me. 

I'd had very bad experiences in the theatre, but there was one play 
I'd liked: Beckett's Waiting for Godot, which seemed entirely lucid 


and pertinent to my own problems. I was trying to be a painter at the 
time, and my artist friends all agreed that Beckett must be a very 
young man, one of our contemporaries, since he understood our feel- 
ings so well. Because I didn't like the theatre— it seemed so much 
feebler than, say, the films of Kurosawa, or Keaton— I didn't at first 
accept the Royal Court's commission; but then I ran out of money, so 
I wrote a play strongly influenced by Beckett (who once wrote to me, 
saying that 'a stage is an area of maximum verbal presence, and maxi- 
mum corporeal presence'— the word 'corporeal' really delighting me). 

My play was called Brixkam Regatta, and I remember Devine thumb- 
ing through the notices and saying that it was sex that had been in- 
tolerable to the Victorians, and that 'whatever it is now, Keith is 
writing about it'. I was amazed that most critics were so hostile. I'd 
been illustrating a theme of Blake's : 'Alas ! The time will come when a 
man's worst enemies shall be those of his own house and family . . .' 
But in 1958 such a view was unacceptable. Ten years later, when I 
directed the play at the Mermaid, it didn't seem at all shocking: its 
ideas had become commonplace. 

I've been often told how weird and silent I seemed to many people, 
but Devine was amused by my ideas (many of which came from Stir- 
ling). I'd argue that a director should never demonstrate anything to 
an actor, that a director should allow the actor to make his own 
discoveries, that the actor should think he'd done all the work himself. 
I objected to the idea that the director should work out the moves 
before the production started. I said that if an actor forgot a move that 
had been decided on, then the move was probably wrong. Later I 
argued that moves weren't important, that with only a couple of 
actors on a stage, why did it matter where they moved anyway? I 
explained that Hamlet in Russian can be just as impressive, so were 
the words really of first importance? I said that the set was no more 
important than the apparatus in the circus. I wasn't saying much that 
was new, but I didn't know that, and certainly such thoughts weren't 
fashionable at the rime. I remember Devine going round the theatre 
chuckling that 'Keith thinks King Lear should have a happy ending ! V 
They were surprised that someone so inexperienced as myself 
should have become their best play-reader. Tony Richardson, then 
Devine's Associate Director, once thanked me because I was taking 
such a load off them. I was successful precisely because I didn't 
exercise my taste. I would first read plays as quickly as possible, and 
categorise them as pseudo-Pinter, fake-Osborne, phoney-Beckett, and 
so on. Any play that seemed to come from the author's own ex- 

perience I'd then read attentively, and either leave it in Devine's 
office or, if I didn't like it, give it to someone else to read. As ninety- 
nine per cent of the plays submitted were just cribs from other people, 
the job was easy. I had expected that there'd be a very gentle gradation 
from awful to excellent, and that I'd be involved in a lot of heart- 
searching. Almost all were total failures — they couldn't have been put 
on in the village hall for the author's friends. It wasn't a matter of 
lack of talent, but of miseducation. The authors of the pseudo-plays 
assumed that writing should be based on other writing, not on life. 
My play had been influenced by Beckett, but at least the content had 
been mine. 

Sometimes I'd read a play I liked, but that no one else would think 
worth directing. Devine said that if I was really convinced they were 
good I should direct them myself on a Sunday night. I directed 
Edward Bond's first play in this way, but the very first play I directed 
was Kon Fraser's Eleven Plus (which I still have a fondness for, 
although it hasn't prospered much). I was given advice by Ann 
Jellicoe— already an accomplished director— and I was successful. It 
really seemed that even if I couldn't write any more — and writing had 
become extremely laborious and unpleasant for me — at least I could 
earn a living as a director. Obviously, I felt I ought to study my craft, 
but the more I understood how things ought to be done, the more 
boring my productions were. Then as now, when I'm inspired, every- 
thing is fine, but when I try to get things right it's a disaster. In a way 
I was successful — I ended up as an Associate Director of the theatre 
— but once again my talent had left me. 

When I considered the difference between myself, and other people, 
I thought of myself as a late developer. Most people lose their talent 
at puberty. I lost mine in my early twenties. I began to think of 
children not as immature adults, but of adults as atrophied children. 
But when I said this to educationalists, they became angry. 

Writers' Group 

George Devine had announced that the Royal Court 
was to be a 'writers' theatre', but the writers weren't having much say 
m the policies of the theatre. George thought a discussion group would 
correct this, and he chaired three meetings, which were so tedious 
that he handed the job over to William Gaskill, one of his young 
directors. Bill had directed my play Brixham Regatta, and he asked me 
how I would run the group. I said that if it continued as a talking-shop, 
then everyone would abandon it, and that we should agree to discuss 


nothing that could be acted out. Bill agreed, and the group immediately 
began to function as an improvisation group. We learned that things 
invented on the spur of the moment could be as good or better than 
the texts we laboured over. We developed very practical attitudes to 
the theatre. As Edward Bond said, 'The writers' group taught me that 
drama was about relationships, not about characters.' I've since found 
that my no-discussion idea wasn't original. Carl Weber, writing about 
Brecht, says: '. . . the actors would suggest a way of doing something, 
and if they started to explain, Brecht would say he wanted no dis- 
cussion in rehearsal— it would have to be tried ' (A pity all 

Brechtians don't have the master's attitude.) 

My bias against discussion is something I've learned to see as very 
English. I've known political theatre groups in Europe which would 
readily cancel a rehearsal, but never a discussion. My feeling is that 
the best argument may be a testimony to the skill of the presenter, 
rather than to the excellence of the solution advocated. Also the bulk 
of discussion time is visibly taken up with transactions of status which 
have nothing to do with the problem to be solved. My attitude is like 
Edison's, who found a solvent for rubber by putting bits of rubber in 
every solution he could think of, and beat all those scientists who were 
approaching the problem theoretically. 

The Royal Court Theatre Studio 

Devine had been a student of Michel Saint-Denis, 
who was a nephew of the great director Jacques Copeau. Copeau had 
been an advocate of studio work, and George also wanted a studio. He 
started it with hardly any budget, and as I was on the staff, and full of 
theories, he asked me if I would teach there. Actually William Gaskill 
was the director, and they agreed that I should teach there. I'd been 
advocating setting a studio up so I could hardly refuse; but I was 
embarrassed, and worried. I didn't know anything about training 
actors, and I was sure that the professionals— many from the Royal 
Shakespeare, and some who shortly afterwards went into the National 
Theatre Company— would know far more than I did. I decided to 
give classes in 'Narrative Skills' (see page 109), hoping I'd be one jump 
ahead in this area. Because of my dislike of discussion I insisted that 
everything should be acted out— as at the Writers' Group— and the 
work became very funny. It was also very different, because I was 
consciously reacting against Stanislavsky. I thought, wrongly, that 
Stanislavsky's methods implied a naturalistic theatre— which it 
doesn't, as you can see from the qualifications he introduces as to what 

sorts of objectives are permissible, and so on. I thought his insistence 
on the 'given circumstances' was seriously limiting, and I didn't like 
the 'who, what, where' approach which my actors urged on me, and 
which I suppose was American in origin (it's described, in Viola 
Spolin's Improvisation for the Theatre, Northwestern University Press, 
1963; fortunately I didn't know about this book until 1966, when a 
member of an audience lent it to me). Lacking solutions, I had to find 
my own. What I did was to concentrate on relationships between 
strangers, and on ways of combining the imagination of two people 
which would be additive, rather than subtractive. I developed status 
transactions, and word-at-a-rime games, and almost all of the work 
described in this book. I hope this still seems fresh to some people, 
but actually it dates back to the early sixties and late fifties. 

My classes were hysterically funny, but I remembered Stirling's 
contempt for artists who form 'self-admiration groups' and wondered 
if we were deluding ourselves. Could the work really be so funny? 
Wasn't it just that we all knew each other? Even considering the fact 
that I had some very talented and experienced actors, weren't we just 
entertaining each other? Was it right that every class should be like a 

I decided we'd have to perform in front of real audiences, and see if 
we were funny. I took about sixteen actors along to my contemporary 
theatre class at Morley College, and said we'd like to demonstrate 
some of the exercises we were developing. I'd thought that I'd be the 
nervous one, but the actors huddled in the corner and looked terrified. 
Once I started giving the exercises, they relaxed; and to our amaze- 
ment we found that when the work was good, the audience laughed 
far more than we would have done ! It wasn't so easy to do work of a 
high standard in public, but we were delighted at the enthusiasm of 
the spectators. I wrote to six London colleges and offered them free 
demonstration classes, and afterwards we received many invitations 
to perform elsewhere. I cut the number of performers down to four or 
five and, with strong support from the Ministry of Education, we 
started touring around schools and colleges. There, we often found 
ourselves on a stage, and we automatically drifted into giving shows 
rather than demonstrations. We called ourselves 'The Theatre 
Machine', and the British Council sent us around Europe. Soon we 
were a very influential group, and the only pure improvisation group 
I knew, in that we prepared nothing, and everything was like a 
jazzed-up drama class. 
It's weird to wake up knowing you'll be onstage in twelve hours, 


and that there's absolutely nothing you can do to ensure success. All 
day you can feel some part of your mind gathering power, and with 
luck there'll be no interruption to the flow, actors and audience will 
completely understand each other, and the high feeling lasts for days. 
At other times you feel a coldness in everyone's eyes, and deserts of 
time seem to lie ahead of you. The actors don't seem to be able to see 
or hear properly any more— they feel so wretched that scene after 
scene is about vomiting. Even if the audience are pleased by the 
novelty, you feel you're swindling them. After a while a pattern is 
established in which each performance gets better and better until 
the audience is like a great beast rolling over to let you tickle it. Then 
hubris gets you, you lose your humility, you expect to be loved, and 
you turn into Sisyphus. All comedians know these feelings. 

As I came to understand the techniques that release creativity in the 
improviser, so I began to apply them to my own work. What really 
got me started again was an advert for a play of mine in the paper, a 
play called The Martian. I had never written such a play, so I phoned 
up Bryan King, who directed the theatre. 'We've been trying to find 
you,' he said. 'We need a play for next week, does the title The 
Martian suit you?' I wrote the play, and it was well received. Since 
then I've deliberately put myself in this position. I get myself engaged 
by a company and write the plays as I'm rehearsing the actors. For 
example, in eight weeks I did two street theatre plays lasting twenty 
minutes, plus a three-hour improvised play called Der Fisch, plus a 
children's play lasting an hour— this was for Salvatore Poddine's 
Tubingen theatre. I don't see that the plays created in this way are 
inferior to those I struggle over, sometimes for years. 

I didn't learn how to direct again until I left the Royal Court 
Theatre and was invited to Victoria (on Vancouver Island). I directed 
the Wakefield Mystery Cycle there, and I was so far away from any- 
one whose criticism I cared about that I felt free to do exactly what I 
felt like. Suddenly I was spontaneous again; and since then, I've 
always directed plays as if I was totally ignorant about directing; I 
simply approach each problem on a basis of common sense and try to 
find the most obvious solutions possible. 

Nowadays everything is very easy to me (except writing didactic 
things like this book). If we need a cartoon for the programme, I'll 
draw one. If we need a play I'll write it. I cut knots instead of labor- 
iously trying to untie them— that's how people see me; but they have 
no idea of the turgid state I used to be in, or the morass from which 
I'm still freeing myself. 


Getting the Right Relationship 

If you want to apply the methods I'm describing in 
this book, you may have to teach the way that I teach. When I give 
workshops, I see people frantically scribbling down the exercises, but 
not noticing what it is I actually do as a teacher. My feeling is that a 
good teacher can get results using any method, and that a bad teacher 
can wreck any method. 

There seems no doubt that a group can make or break its members, 
and that it's more powerful than the individuals in it. A great group 
can propel its members forward so that they achieve amazing things, 
Many teachers don't seem to think that manipulating a group is their 
responsibility at all. If they're working with a destructive, bored 
group, they just blame the students for being 'dull', or uninterested. 
It's essential for the teacher to blame himself if the group aren't in 
a good state. 

Normal schooling is intensely competitive, and the students are 
supposed to try and outdo each other. If I explain to a group that 
they're to work for the other members, that each individual is to be 
interested in the progress of the other members, they're amazed, yet 
obviously if a group supports its own members strongly, it'll be a 
better group to work in. 

The first thing I do when I meet a group of new students is (prob- 
ably) to sit on the floor. I play low status, and I'll explain that if the 
students fail they're to blame me. Then they laugh, and relax, and I 
explain that really it's obvious that they should blame me, since I'm 
supposed to be the expert; and if I give them the wrong material, 
they'll fail; and if I give them the right material, then they'll succeed. 
I play low status physically but my actual status is going up, since only 
a very confident and experienced person would put the blame for 
failure on himself. At this point they almost certainly start sliding off 
their chairs, because they don't want to be higher than me. I have 
already changed the group profoundly, because failure is suddenly not 
so frightening any more. They'll want to test me, of course; but I 
really will apologise to them when they fail, and ask them to be patient 
with me, and explain that I'm not perfect. My methods are very effect- 
ive, and other things being equal, most students will succeed, but they 
won't be trying to win any more. The normal teacher-student 
relationship is dissolved. 

When I was teaching young children, I trained myself to share my 
eye contacts out among the group. I find this crucial in establishing a 


'fair' relationship with them. I've seen many teachers who concentrate 
their eye contacts on only a few students, and this does affect the 
feeling in a group. Certain students are disciples, but others feel 
separated, or experience themselves as less interesting, or as 'failures'. 

I've also trained myself to make positive comments, and to be as 
direct as possible. I say 'Good' instead of 'That's enough'. I've actually 
heard teachers say 'Well, let's see who fails at this one', when intro- 
ducing an exercise. Some teachers get reassurance when their students 
fail. We must have all encountered the teacher who gives a self- 
satisfied smile when a student makes a mistake. Such an attitude is not 
conducive to a good, warm feeling in the group. 

When (in 1964) I read of Wolpe's work in curing phobias, I saw 
a clear relationship with the ideas I'd got from Stirling, and with the 
way I was developing them. Wolpe relaxed his phobic patients and 
then presented them with a very dilute form of the thing that scared 
them. Someone terrified of birds might be asked to imagine a bird, 
but one in Australia. At the same time that the image was presented, 
the patient was relaxed, and the relaxation was maintained (if it wasn't 
maintained, if the patient started to tremble, or sweat or whatever, 
then something even less alarming would be presented). Relaxation is 
incompatible with anxiety; and by maintaining the relaxed state, and 
presenting images that gradually neared the centre of the phobia, the 
state of alarm was soon dissipated— in most cases. Wolpe taught his 
patients to relax, but soon other psychologists were using pentathol 
to assist the relaxation. However, there has to be an intention to relax 
(muscle-relaxant drugs can be used as a torture !). 

If we were all terrified of open spaces, then we would hardly 
recognise this as a phobia to be cured; but it could be cured. My 
view is that we have a universal phobia of being looked at on a stage, 
and that this responds very well to 'progressive desensitisation' of the 
type that Wolpe advocates. Many teachers seem to me to be trying 
to get their students to conceal fear, which always leaves some traces— 
a heaviness, an extra tension, a lack of spontaneity. I try to dissipate 
the fear by a method analogous to Wolpe's, but which I really got 
from Anthony Stirling. The one finding of Wolpe which I immediately 
incorporated into my work was the discovery that if the healing pro- 
cess is interrupted by a recurrence of the total fear— maybe a patient 
being treated for a phobia of birds suddenly finds himself surrounded 
by fluttering pigeons— then the treatment has to be started again at 
the bottom of the hierarchy. I therefore constantly return to the very 
first stages of the work to try to pull in those students who remain in 

a terrified state, and who therefore make hardly any progress. Instead 
of seeing people as untalented, we can see them as phobic, and this 
completely changes the teacher's relationship with them. 

Students will arrive with many techniques for avoiding the pain of 
failure. John Holt's How Children Fail (Penguin, 1969; Pitman, 1970) 
gives examples of children learning to get round problems, rather than 
learning to find solutions to problems. If you screw your face up and bite 
on your pencil to show you're 'trying', the teacher may write out the 
answer for you. (In my school, if you sat relaxed and thought, you were 
likely to get swiped on the back of the head.) I explain to the students 
the devices they're using to avoid tackling the problems — however easy 
the problems are — and the release of tension is often amazing. Univer- 
sity students may roll about in hysterical laughter. I take it that the 
relief comes from understanding that other people use the same 
manoeuvres as they do. 

For example, many students will begin an improvisation, or a 
scene, in a rather feeble way. It's as if they're ill, and lacking in vitality. 
They've learned to play for sympathy. However easy the problem, 
they'll use the same old trick of looking inadequate. This ploy is 
supposed to make the onlookers have sympathy with them if they 
'fail' and it's expected to bring greater rewards if they 'win'. Actually 
this down-in-the-mouth attitude almost guarantees failure, and makes 
everyone fed up with them. No one has sympathy with an adult who 
takes such an attitude, but when they were children it probably 
worked. As adults they're still doing it. Once they've laughed at them- 
selves and understood how unproductive such an attitude is, students 
who look 'ill' suddenly look 'healthy'. The attitude of the group may 
instantly change. 

Another common ploy is to anticipate the problem, and to try and 
prepare solutions in advance. (Almost all students do this — probably 
it started when they were learning to read. You anticipate which para- 
graph will be yours, and start trying to decipher it. This has two great 
disadvantages : it stops you learning from the attempts of your class- 
mates ; and very likely you'll have calculated wrongly, and will be asked 
to read one of the adjacent paragraphs throwing you into total panic.) 

Most students haven't realised— till I show them— how inefficient 
such techniques are. The idea that a teacher should be interested in 
such things is, unfortunately, novel to them. I also explain strategies 
"ke sitting on the end of the row, and how it isolates you from the 
group, and body positions that prevent absorption (like the 'lit-crit' 
Postures which keep the user 'detached' and 'objective'). 


In exchange for accepting the blame for failure, I ask the students 
to set themselves up in such a way that they'll learn as quickly as 
possible. I'm teaching spontaneity, and therefore I tell them that they 
mustn't try to control the future, or to 'win'; and that they're to have 
an empty head and just watch. When it's their turn to take part they're 
to come out and just do what they're asked to, and see what happens. 
It's this decision not to try and control the future which allows the 
students to be spontaneous. 

If I'm playing with my three-year-old son and I smack him, he 
looks at me for signals that will turn the sensation into either warmth 
or pain. A very gentle smack that he perceives as 'serious' will have 
him howling in agony. A hard 'play' slap may make him laugh. When 
I want to work and he wants me to continue playing he will give very 
strong 'I am playing' signals in an attempt to pull me back into his 
game. All people relate to each other in this way but most teachers 
are afraid to give 'I am playing' signals to their students. If they would, 
their work would become a constant pleasure. 


i. If you have trouble understanding this section, it may be because 
you're a conceptualiser, rather than a visualiser. William Grey Walter, in 
The Living Brain (Penguin, 1963) calculated that one in six of us are 
conceptualisers (actually in my view there is a far smaller proportion of 
conceptualisers among drama students). 

I have a simple way of telling if people are visualisers. I ask them to 
describe the furniture in a room they're familiar with. Visualisers move 
their eyes as if 'seeing' each object as they name it. Conceptualisers look 
in one direction as if reading off a list. 

Galton investigated mental imagery at the beginning of the century, 
and found that the more educated the person, the more likely he was to 
say that mental imagery was unimportant, or even that it didn't exist. 

An exercise: fix your eyes on some object, and attend to something at 
the periphery of your vision. You can see what you're attending to, but 
actually your mind is assembling the object from relatively little infor- 
mation. Now look directly, and observe the difference. This is one way of 
tricking the mind out of its habitual dulling of the world. 


1 The See-saw 

When I began teaching at the Royal Court Theatre 
Studio (1963), I noticed that the actors couldn't reproduce 'ordinary' 
conversation. They said 'Talky scenes are dull', but the conversations 
they acted out were nothing like those I overheard in life. For some 
weeks I experimented with scenes in which two 'strangers' met and 
interacted, and I tried saying 'No jokes', and 'Don't try to be clever', 
but the work remained unconvincing. They had no way to mark time 
and allow situations to develop, they were forever striving to latch on 
to 'interesting' ideas. If casual conversations really were motiveless, 
and operated by chance, why was it impossible to reproduce them 
at the studio? 

I was preoccupied with this problem when I saw the Moscow Art's 
production of The Cherry Orchard. Everyone on stage seemed to have 
chosen the strongest possible motives for each action—no doubt the 
production had been 'unproved' in the decades since Stanislavsky 
directed it. The effect was 'theatrical' but not like life as I knew it. I 
asked myself for the first time what were the weakest possible motives, 
the motives that the characters I was watching might really have had. 
When I returned to the studio I set the first of my status exercises. 

'Try to get your status just a little above or below your partner's,' I 
said, and I insisted that the gap should be minimal. The actors seemed 
to know exactly what I meant and the work was transformed. The 
scenes became 'authentic', and actors seemed marvellously observant. 
Suddenly we understood that every inflection and movement implies 
a status, and that no action is due to chance, or really 'motiveless'. It 
was hysterically funny, but at the same time very alarming. All our 
secret manoeuvrings were exposed. If someone asked a question we 
didn't bother to answer it, we concentrated on why it had been asked. 
No one could make an 'innocuous' remark without everyone instantly 
grasping what lay behind it. Normally we are 'forbiddea' to see status 
fransactions except when there's a conflict. In reality status trans- 
actions continue all the time. In the park we'll notice the ducks 
squabbling, but not how carefully they keep their distances when 
they are not. 


Here's a conversation quoted by W. R. Bion {Experience in Groups, 
Tavistock Publications, 1968) which he gives as an example of a group 
not getting anywhere while apparently being friendly. The remarks on 
the status interactions are mine. 

MRS x: I had a nasty turn last week. I was standing in a 

queue waiting for my turn to go into the cinema when 
I felt ever so queer. Really, I thought I should faint 
or something. 

[Mrs X is attempting to raise her status by having an interesting medical 
problem. Mrs Y immediately outdoes her.] 

MRS y: You're lucky to have been going to a cinema. If I 

thought I could go to a cinema I should think I had 
nothing to complain of at all. 
[Mrs Z now blocks Mrs Y.] 

MRS z: I know what Mrs X means. I feel just like that 

myself, only I should have had to leave the queue. 
[Mrs Z is very talented in that she supports Mrs X against Mrs Y while 
at the same time claiming to be more worthy of interest, her condition 
more severe. Mr A now intervenes to lower them all by making their 
condition seem very ordinary.] 

mr a: Have you tried stooping down? That makes the 
blood come back to your head. I expect you were 
feeling faint. 
[Mrs X defends herself] 

MRS x: It's not really faint. 

mrs y: I always find it does a lot of good to try exercises. I 
don't know if that's what Mr A means. 
[She seems to be joining forces with Mr A, but implies that he was unable 
to say what he meant. She doesn't say •Is that what you mean?' but pro- 
tects herself by her typically high-status circumlocution. Mrs Z now 
lowers everybody, and immediately lowers herself to avoid counter- 
attack.] , 
MRS z: I think you have to use your will-power. That s 
what worries me — I haven't got any. 
[Mr B then intervenes, I suspect in a low-status way, or rather trying 
to be high-status but failing. It's impossible to be sure from just the 

MR B: I had something similar happen to me last weeK, 
only I wasn't standing in a queue. I was just sitting 
at home quietly when . . . 
[Mr C demolishes him.] 


MR c: You were lucky to be sitting at home quietly. If I 
was able to do that I shouldn't think I had anything 
to grumble about. If you can't sit at home why don't 
you go to the cinema or something? 
Bion says that the prevailing atmosphere was of good temper and 
helpfulness. He adds that 'A suspicion grows in my mind, that there is 
no hope whatever of expecting co-operation from this group.' Fair 
enough. What he has is a group where everyone attacks the status of 
everyone else while pretending to be friendly. If he taught them to 
play status transactions as games then the feeling within the group 
would improve. A lot of laughter would have been released, and the 
group might have flipped over from acting as a competitive group into 
acting as a co-operative one. It's worth noting how much talent is 
locked away inside these apparently banal people. 

We've all observed different kinds of teachers, so if I describe three 
types of status players commonly found in the teaching profession 
you may find that you already know exactly what I mean. 

I remember one teacher, whom we liked but who couldn't keep 
discipline. The Headmaster made it obvious that he wanted to fire 
him, and we decided we'd better behave. Next lesson we sat in a 
spooky silence for about five minutes, and then one by one we began to 
fool about — boys jumping from table to table, acetylene-gas exploding 
in the sink, and so on. Finally, our teacher was given an excellent 
reference just to get rid of him, and he landed a headmastership at the 
other end of the county. We were left with the paradox that our 
behaviour had nothing to do with our conscious intention. 
Another teacher, who was generally disliked, never punished and 
exerted a ruthless discipline. In the street he walked with fixity of 
osc, striding along and stabbing people with his eyes. Without 
punishing, or making threats, he filled us with terror. We discussed 
with awe how terrible fife must be for his own children. 

A third teacher, who was much loved, never punished but kept 
excellent discipline, while remaining very human. He would joke with 
u s, and then impose a mysterious stillness. In the street he looked 
u Pnght, but relaxed, and he smiled easily. 

I thought about these teachers a lot, but I couldn't understand the 
°rces operating on us. I would now say that the incompetent teacher 
Was a low-status player: he twitched, he made many unnecessary 
movements, he went red at the slightest annoyance, and he always 
like an intruder in the classroom. The one who filled us with 
w as a compulsive high-status player. The third was a status 


expert, raising and lowering his status with great skill. The pleasure 
attached to misbehaving comes partly from the status changes you 
make in your teacher. All those jokes on teacher are to make him 
drop in status. The third teacher could cope easily with any situation 
by changing his status first. 

Status is a confusing term unless it's understood as something one 
does. You may be low in social status, but play high, and vice versa. 
For example : 

tramp: 'Ere! Where are you going? 
duchess : I'm sorry, I didn't quite catch . . . 
tramp : Are you deaf as well as blind? 

Audiences enjoy a contrast between the status played and the social 
status. We always like it when a tramp is mistaken for the boss, or the 
boss for a tramp. Hence plays like The Inspector General. Chaplin 
liked to play the person at the bottom of the hierarchy and then lower 

I should really talk about dominance and submission, but I'd create 
a resistance. Students who will agree readily to raising or lowering 
their status may object if asked to 'dominate' or 'submit'. 

Status seems to me to be a useful term, providing the difference 
between the status you are and the status you play is understood. 

As soon as I introduced the status work at the Studio, we found that 
people will play one status while convinced that they are playing the 
opposite. This obviously makes for very bad social 'meshing' — as in 
Bion's therapy group — and many of us had to revise our whole idea of 
ourselves. In my own case I was astounded to find that when I thought 
I was being friendly, I was actually being hostile ! If someone had said 
T like your play', I would have said 'Oh, it's not up to much', perceiv- 
ing myself as 'charmingly modest'. In reality I would have been 
implying that my admirer had bad taste. I experience the opposite 
situation when people come up, looking friendly and supportive, and 
say, 'We did enjoy the end of Act One', leaving me to wonder what 
was wrong with the rest. 

I ask a student to lower his status during a scene, and he enters and 

A: What are you reading? 

B: War and Peace. 

A: Ah! That's my favourite book! 
The class laugh and A stops in amazement. I had told him to lower his 
status during the scene, and he doesn't see what's gone wrong. 
I ask him to try it again and suggest a different line of dialogue. 


A : What are you reading? 

B : War and Peace. 

A : I've always wanted to read that. 
A now experiences the difference, and realises that he was originally 
claiming 'cultural superiority' by implying that he had read this 
immense work many times. If he'd understood this he could have 
corrected the error. 

A: Ah! That's my favourite book. 

B: Really? 

A : Oh yes. Of course I only look at the pictures . . . 
A further early discovery was that there was no way to be neutral. 
The 'Good morning' that might be experienced as lowering by the 
Manager, might be experienced as raising by the bank clerk. The 
messages are modified by the receivers. 

You can see people trying to be neutral in group photographs. They 
pose with arms folded or close to their sides as if to say 'Look! I'm 
not claiming any more space than I'm entiticd to', and they hold 
themselves very straight as if saying 'But I'm not submissive either!' 
If someone points a camera at you you're in danger of having your 
status exposed, so you either clown about, or become deliberately 
unexpressive. In formal group photographs it's normal to see people 
guarding their status. You get quite different effects when people 
don't know they're being photographed. 

If status can't even be got rid of, then what happens between friends ? 
Many people will maintain that we don't play status transactions with 
our friends, and yet every movement, every inflection of the voice 
implies a status. My answer is that acquaintances become friends 
when they agree to play status games together. If I take an acquaint- 
ance an early morning cup of tea I might say 'Did you have a good 
night?' or something equally 'neutral', the status being established by 
voice and posture and eye contact and so on. If I take a cup of tea to a 
friend then I may say 'Get up, you old cow', or 'Your Highness's tea', 
pretending to raise or lower status. Once students understand that they 
already play status games with their friends, then they realise that 
they already know most of the status games I'm trying to teach them. 

We soon discovered the 'see-saw' principle: 'I go up and you go 
down'. Walk into a dressing-room and say T got the part' and evcry- 
a ne will congratulate you, but will feel lowered. Say 'They said I was 
old' and people commiserate, but cheer up perceptibly. Kings and 
lords used to surround themselves with dwarfs and cripples so 
could rise by the contrast. Some modern celebrities do the 


same. The exception to this see-saw principle comes when you 
identify with the person being raised or lowered, when you sit on his 
end of the see-saw, so to speak. If you claim status because you know 
some famous person, then you'll feel raised when they are : similarly, 
an ardent royalist won't want to see the Queen fall off her horse. When 
we tell people nice things about ourselves this is usually a little like 
kicking them. People really want to be told things to our discredit in 
such a way that they don't have to feel sympathy. Low-status players 
save up little tit-bits involving their own discomfiture with which to 
amuse and placate other people. 

If I'm trying to lower my end of the see-saw, and my mind blocks, 
I can always switch to raising the other end. That is, I can achieve a 
similar effect by saying 'I smell beautiful' as 'You stink'. I therefore 
teach actors to switch between raising themselves and lowering their 
partners in alternate sentences ; and vice versa. Good playwrights also 
add variety in this way. For example, look at the opening of Moliere's 
A Doctor in Spite of Himself. The remarks on status are mine. 
SGANARELLE: [Raises himself] No, I tell you I'll have nothing to 

do with it and it's for me to say, I'm the master. 
MARTINE: [Lowers Sganarelle, raises herself.] And I'm telling 

you that I'll have you do as I want. I didn't marry you 

to put up with your nonsensical goings-on. 
sganarelle: [Lowers Martine.] Oh! The misery of married life! 

How right Aristode was when he said wives were 

the very devil! 

martine: [Lowers Sganarelle and Aristotle.] Just listen to the 
clever fellow— him and his blockhead of an 

sganarelle: [Raises himself.] Yes, I'm a clever fellow all right! 

Produce me a woodcutter who can argue and hold 
forth like me, a man who has served six years with 
a famous physician and had his Latin grammar off 
by heart since infancy ! 
martine: [Lowers Sganarelle.] A plague on the idiot! 

sganarelle: [Lowers Martine.] A plague on you, you worthless 

martine: [Lowers her wedding day.] A curse on the day and 
hour when I took it into my head to go and say 
'I will'! 

sganarelle: [Lowers notary.] And a curse on the cuckold of a 

notary who made me sign my name to my own ruin. 


;: [Raises herself] A lot of reason you have to complain, 
I must say ! You ought to thank Heaven every 
minute of your life that you have me for your wife. 
Do you think you deserved to marry a woman like 
me? [And so on.) 

(The Misanthrope and other plays, translated by 
John Wood, Penguin, 1959.) 
Most comedy works on the see-saw principle. A comedian is 
someone paid to lower his own or other people's status. I remember 
some of Ken Dodd's patter which went something like this : 'I got up 
this morning and had my bath . . . standing up in the sink . . .' (Laugh 
from audience.) '. . . and then I lay down to dry off — on the draining- 
board . . .' (Laughter.) '. . . and then my father came in and said 
"Who skinned this rabbit?".' (Laughter.) While he describes himself 
in this pathetic way he leaps about, and expresses manic happiness, 
absolving the audience of the need to pity him. We want people 
: very low-status, but we don't want to feel sympathy for them — 
are always supposed to sing at their work. 
: way to understand status transactions is to examine the comic 
s, the 'funnies'. Most are based on very simple status transactions, 
I it's interesting to observe the postures of the characters, and the 
nges in status between the first and last frames. 

ather way is to examine jokes, and analyse their status transac- 
s. For example : 

customer: 'Ere, there's a cockroach in the loo! 
barmaid: Well you'll have to wait till he's finished, won't you? 
r again : 

A: Who's that fat noisy old bag? 
B : That's my wife. 
B : Oh, I'm sorry . . . 

A: You're sorry! How do you think I feel? 

2 Comedy and Tragedy 

In his essay on laughter Bergson maintained that the 
roan-falling-on-a-banana-skin joke was funny because the victim had 
suddenly been forced into acting like an automaton. He wrote: 
through lack of elasticity, through absent-mindedness, and a kind 
°f Physical obstinacy: as a result, in fact, of rigidity or of momentum, 
e muscles continued to perform the same movement when the 
-"cumstances of the case called for something else. This is the reason 


for the man's fall, and also of the people's laughter.' Later in the same 
essay he says: 'What is essentially laughable is what is done auto- 

In my view the man who falls on the banana skin is funny only if 
he loses status, and if we don't have sympathy with him. If my poor 
old blind grandfather falls over I'll rush up and help him to his feet. 
If he's really hurt I may be appalled. If Nixon had slipped up on the 
White House steps many people would have found it hysterical. If 
Bergson had been right then we would laugh at a drowning man, and 
grand military parades would have the crowds rocking with merri- 
ment. A Japanese regiment is said to have masturbated by numbers 
in a football stadium as an insult to the population of Nanking, but I 
don't suppose it was funny at the time. Chaplin being sucked into the 
machine is funny because his style absolves us of the need for sym- 

Tragedy also works on the see-saw principle: its subject is the 
ousting of a high-status animal from the pack. Super-intelligent 
wolves might have invented this form of theatre, and the lupine 
Oedipus would play high status at all times. Even when he was being 
led into the wilderness he wouldn't whine, and he'd keep his tail up. 
If he crumbled into low-status posture and voice the audience 
wouldn't get the necessary catharsis. The effect wouldn't be tragic, but 
pathetic. Even criminals about to be executed were supposed to make a 
'good end', i.e. to play high status. When the executioner asked Raleigh 
if he wouldn't rather face the light of the dawn he said something like 
'What matter how the head lie, if the heart be right", which is still 

When a very high-status person is wiped out, everyone feels 
pleasure as they experience the feeling of moving up a step. This is why 
tragedy has always been concerned with kings and princes, and why 
we have a special high-status style for playing tragedy. I've seen a mis- 
guided Faustus writhing on the floor at the end of the play, which is 
bad for the verse, and pretty ineffective. Terrible things can happen 
to the high-status animal, he can poke his eyes out with his wife's 
brooch, but he must never look as if he could accept a position lower 
in the pecking order. He has to be ejected from it. 

Tragedy is obviously related to sacrifice. Two things strike me 
about reports of sacrifices : one is that the crowd get more and more 
tense, and then are relaxed and happy at the moment of death; the 
other is that the victim is raised in status before being sacrificed. The 
best goat is chosen, and it's groomed, and magnificently decorated. A 


human sacrifice might be pampered for months, and then dressed in 
fine clothes, and rehearsed in his role at the centre of the great cere- 
mony. Elements of this can be seen in the Christ story (the robe, the 
crown of thorns, and even the earing of the 'body'). A sacrifice has to 
wed with high status or the magic doesn't work. 

3 Teaching Status 

Social animals have inbuilt rules which prevent them 
each other for food, mates, and so on. Such animals confront 
* other, and sometimes fight, until a hierarchy is established, after 
which there is no fighting unless an attempt is being made to change 
the 'pecking order'. This system is found in animals as diverse as 
human beings, chicken, and woodlice. I've known about this ever 
since I was given a book about social dominance in kittiwake colonies, 
yet I hadn't immediately thought of applying this information to 
actor training. This is because normal people are inhibited from seeing 
v '„at no action, sound, or movement is innocent of purpose. Many 
psychologists have noted how uncannily perceptive some schizo- 
-hrenics are. I think that their madness must have opened their eyes 
things that 'normal' people are trained to ignore. 
In animals the pattern of eye contacts often establishes dominance. 
A stare is often interpreted as an aggressive act — hence the dangers of 
:~ki=g at gorillas through binoculars. Visitors to zoos feel dominant 
when they can outstare the animals. I suggest you try the opposite 
with zoo animals : break eye contact and then glance back for a mo- 
ment. Polar bears may suddenly see you as 'food'. Owls cheer up 

Some people dispute that the held eye contact between 'strangers' 
is dominant. Kenneth Strongman wrote in the March 1970 issue of 
Science Journal: 'At the time we thought ourselves justified in con- 
cluding that a dominance structure of submission from eye contact 
exists and that this tends to approach hierarchy, particularly when the 
focus is on initial eye contact. Our reason for considering it to be con- 
cerned with dominance was based on a statement made by Argyle 
and Dean, who suggested that if A wants to dominate B he stares at 
him appropriately; B can accept this with a submissive expression or 
by looking away, or can challenge and outstare. However, S. E. 
Poppleton, a research student at Exeter, has since shown that the 
relationship between eye-glance submission hierarchies and an inde- 
dent measure of dominance (provided by Catell's 16PF personality 


inventory) is an inverse one. Thus he who looks away first is the more 

One might contrast this with other reports, like that of an experi- 
ment at Stanford University where it was found that drivers who had 
been stared at left traffic lights appreciably faster. Such disagreements 
indicate the difficulty of actually perceiving status transactions. In my 
view, breaking eye contact can be high status so long as you don't 
immediately glance back for a fraction of a second. If you ignore 
someone your status rises, if you feel impelled to look back then it 
falls. It's as if the proper state of human beings is high, but that we 
modify ourselves to avoid conflicts. Posture experts (like Mathias 
Alexander) teach high-status postures as 'correct'. It's only to be 
expected that status is established not by staring, but by the reaction 
to staring. Thus dark glasses raise status because we can't see the 
submission of the eyes. 

I minimise 'status resistance' from my students by getting them to 
experience various status sensations before I discuss the implications, 
or even introduce the term. I might ask them to say something nice to 
the person beside them, and then to say something nasty. This 
releases a lot of laughter, and they are surprised to find that they 
often achieve the wrong effect. (Some people never really say anything 
nice, and others never say anything really nasty, but they won't 
realise this.) 

I ask a group to mill about and say 'hallo' to each other. They feel 
very awkward, because the situation isn't real. They don't know what 
status they should be playing. I then get some of the group to hold all 
eye contacts for a couple of seconds, while the others try to make and 
then break eye contacts and then immediately glance back for a moment. 
The group suddenly looks more like a 'real' group, in that some people 
become dominant, and others submissive. Those who hold eye con- 
tacts report that they feel powerful — and actually look powerful. Those 
who break eye contact and glance back 'feel' feeble, and look it. The 
students like doing this, and are interested, and puzzled by the strength 
of the sensations. 

I might then begin to insert a tentative 'er' at the beginning of each 
of my sentences, and ask the group if they detect any change in me. 
They say that I look 'helpless' and 'weak' but they can't, interestingly 
enough, say what I'm doing that's different. I don't normally begin 
every sentence with 'er', so it should be very obvious. Then I move 
the 'er' into the middle of sentences, and they say that they perceive 
me as becoming a little stronger. If I make the 'er' longer, and move it 

status 43 

i to the beginning of sentences, then they say 1 look more import- 
ant, more confident. When I explain what I am doing, and let them 
experiment, they're amazed at the different feelings the length and 
displacement of the 'ers' give them. They are also surprised that it's 
difficult to get some people to use a short 'er'. There wouldn't seem 
to be any problem in putting an 'er' lasting a fraction of a second at the 
beginning of each sentence, but many people unconsciously resist. 
They say W, or they elongate the sound. These are people who 
cling to their self importance. The short 'er' is an invitation for people 
to interrupt you; the long 'er' says 'Don't interrupt me, even though 
I haven't thought what to say yet.' 

Again I change my behaviour and become authoritative. I ask them 
what I've done to create this change in my relation with them, and 
whatever they guess to be the reason — 'You're holding eye contact', 
'You're sitting straighter' — I stop doing, yet the effect continues. 
Finally I explain that I'm keeping my head still whenever I speak, and 
that this produces great changes in the way I perceive myself and am 
perceived by others. I suggest you try it now with anyone you're with. 
Some people find it impossible to speak with a still head, and more 
curiously, some students maintain that it's still while they're actually 
jerking it about. I let such students practise in front of a mirror, or I 
use videotape. Actors needing authority — tragic heroes and so on — 
have to learn this still head trick. You can talk and waggle your head 
about if you play the gravedigger, but not if you play Hamlet. Officers 
are trained not to move the head while issuing commands. 
My belief (at this moment) is that people have a preferred status ; 
they like to be low, or high, and that they try to manoeuvre 
themselves into the preferred positions. A person who plays high 
status is saying 'Don't come near me, I bite.' Someone who plays low 
is saying 'Don't bite me, I'm not worth the trouble.' In either 
case the status played is a defence, and it'll usually work. It's very 
likely that you will increasingly be conditioned into playing the status 
: you've found an effective defence. You become a status specialist, 
good at playing one status, but not very happy or competent at 
ig the other. Asked to play the 'wrong' status, you'll feel 'un- 

I reassure my students, and encourage them, and let them have 
conversations together, trying out different ways of changing their 
status. One student might try moving very smoothly (high status) 
while his partner moves jerkily (low status). 1 One might keep putting 
his hands near his face while he speaks, and the other might try 


keeping his hands away from his face. One might try holding his toes 
pointing inwards (low status), while one sits back and spreads himself 
(high status). 

These are just tricks in order to get the students to experience 
status changes. If I speak with a still head, then I'll do many other 
high-status things quite automatically. I'll speak in complete sentences, 
I'll hold eye contact. I'll move more smoothly, and occupy more 
'space'. If I talk with my toes pointing inwards I'm more likely to give 
a hesitant little 'er' before each sentence, and I'll smile with my teeth 
covering my bottom lip, and I'll sound a little breathless, and so on. 
We were amazed to find that apparently unrelated things could so 
strongly influence each other; it didn't seem reasonable that the 
position of the feet could influence sentence structure and eye con- 
tact, but it is so. 

Once students have understood the concepts, and have been coaxed 
into experiencing the two states, then I get them to play scenes in 
which: (i) both lower status; (2) both raise status; (3) one raises while 
the other lowers; (4) the status is reversed during the scene. 

I insist that they have to get their status just a little above or 
below their partner's. This ensures that they really 'see' their partner, 
as they have exactly to relate their behaviour to his. The automatic 
status skills then 'lock on to' the other actor, and the students are 
transformed into observant, and apparently very experienced impro- 
vises. Of course, they will have been playing status whenever they 
improvised, but it would be usually a personal status, not the status 
of a character. They would be relating to the problem of succeeding 
in the eyes of the audience. These status exercises reproduce on the 
stage exactly the effects of real life, in which moment by moment each 
person adjusts his status up or down a fraction. 

When actors are reversing status during a scene it's good to make 
them grade the transitions as smoothly as possible. I tell them that if 
I took a photograph every five seconds, I'd like to be able to arrange 
the prints in order just by the status shown. It's easy to reverse status 
in one jump. Learning to grade it delicately from moment to moment 
increases the control of the actor. The audience will always be held 
when a status is being modified. 

It isn't necessary for an actor to achieve the status he's trying to 
play in order to interest an audience. To see someone trying to be 
high, and failing, is just as delightful as watching him succeed. 

Here are some notes made by students who had just been intro- 
duced to status work. 



'The using of different types of "er" found me swinging unavoid- 
ably from feeling now inferior, now superior, then inferior again. I 
found myself crossing my arms, fidgeting, walking with my hands in 
my pockets — all movements unnatural to me. I find myself suddenly 
freezing my body in order to check up on my status.' 

'Nothing has been done in class that I didn't believe or "know". 
But I couldn't have stated it.' 

'During that scene with Judith in which she at first touched her 
head all the time, and then gradually stopped doing it, I couldn't 
define the change in her movements, and yet for some reason my 
itude changed towards her. When she touched her head I tried to 
more helpful, reassuring, whereas once she stopped, I felt more 
istant and businesslike — also a bit more challenged — whereas 
sly I'd felt nothing but sympathy.' 
'I've often been told that an actor should be aware of his body but 

a't understand this until I tried talking with my head still.' 
'The most interesting revelation to me was that every time I spoke 
someone I could tell if I felt submissive or the opposite. I then 
tried to play status games in secret with people I knew. Some people I 
thought I knew very well I wouldn't dare try it with. Other relatively 
new friends were easy to play status games with.' 

'Sense of domination when I hold eye contact. Almost a pride in 
being able to look at someone else and have them look away. Looking 
away and back— felt persecuted. As if everyone was trying to crush 
me underfoot.' 

'Status — clothes not important. I was walking to the shower with 
:1 over my shoulder when I met a fully dressed student who 
ok on a very low-status look and allowed me to pass on my way.' 
'Every time I speak to someone I can now tell if I'm submissive or 

'I've always thought that the man I should like to marry should be 
smarter than me; someone I could look up to and respect. Well, my 
boy friend is now smarter than me, and I usually respect his know- 
ledge, but often I find his high status a nuisance. Perhaps I should seek 
someone I consider I'm on the same level with?' 

'I felt the dominant figure in the conversation and proceeded to try 
and subjugate myself to her whims. I did this by the "touch the head 
and face" method. What happened here is that, while prior to this 
move I had done most of the talking and directed the conversation, 
after this ... I was hard put to get a word in edgeways.' 
'I find that when I slow my movements down I go up in status.' 


'I felt as if all the world had suddenly been revealed to me. I 
realise that when I talk to people, my attitude of inner feeling is of 
almost talking down to them.' 

It's a good idea to introduce a bystander into a status scene with 
instructions to 'try not to get involved'. If you are a 'customer' in a 
'restaurant', and someone at the same table quarrels with the 'waiter', 
then your very subtle status manoeuvrings are a delight to watch. 

I increase the confidence of the actors by getting them to play 
sequences of status exercises. For example, a breakfast scene in which 
a husband plays low and a wife plays high, might be followed by an 
office scene in which the husband plays high to a secretary who plays 
low, leading on to a supper scene in which both wife and husband 
play low — and so on. Once the status becomes automatic, as it is in 
life, it's possible to improvise complex scenes with no preparation at 
all. The status exercises are really crutches to support the actor so that 
instinctual systems can operate. The actor then feels that everything is 
easy, and he doesn't experience himself as 'acting' any more than he 
does in life, even though the actual status he's playing may be one 
very unfamiliar to him. 

Without the status work my improvisation group, the Theatre 
Machine, could never have toured successfully in Europe; not without 
preparing the scenes first. If someone starts a scene by saying 'Ah, 
another sinner! What's it to be, the lake of fire or the river of excre- 
ment?' then you can't 'think' fast enough to know how to react. You 
have to understand that the scene is in Hell, and that the other person 
is some sort of devil, and that you're dead all in a split second. If you 
know what status you're playing the answers come automatically. 


'Excrement', you say, playing high status, without doing anything 
you experience as 'thinking' at all, but you speak in a cold voice, and 
you look around as if Hell was less impressive than you'd been led to 
believe. If you're playing low status you say 'Which ever you think 
best, Sir', or whatever. Again with no hesitation, and with eyes full of 
terror, or wonder. 

All this isn't so far away from Stanislavsky as some people might 
suppose, even though in Creating a Role Stanislavsky wrote: 'Play the 
external plot in terms of physical actions. For example: enter a room. 
But since you cannot enter unless you know where you came from, 
where you are going and why, seek out the external facts of the plot to 
give you a basis for physical actions.' (From Appendix A.) Some 
'method' actors take this to mean that they have to know all the 'given 



tances' before they can improvise. If I ask them to do some- 
ling spontaneous they react as if they've been asked to do something 
. This is the result of bad teaching. In order to enter a room 
you need to know is what status you are playing. The actor who 
this is free to improvise in front of an audience with no 
circumstances at all! Interestingly enough Stanislavsky himself 
would almost certainly agree. In Chapter Eight of Creating a Role he 
the director, Tortsov, tell the narrator: 
' "Go up on the stage and play for us Khlestakov's entrance in the 
second act." 

How can I play it since I don't know what I have to do?" said I 
surprise and objection in my tone. 

You do not know everything but you do know some things. So 
y the little that you know. In other words, execute out of the life of 
part those small physical objectives which you can do sincerely, 
truthfully, and in your own person." 

I can't do anything because I don't know anything!" 
' "What do you mean?" objected Tortsov. "The play says 'Enter 

takov.' Don't you know how to go into a room in an inn?" 
' "I do." ' 

What I think he 'knows' is that he must play a particular status. 
One way to teach transitions of status is to get students to leave the 
class, and then come in through the real door and act 'entering the 
ong room'. It's then quite normal to see students entering with 
head down, or walking backwards, or in some other way that will 
irevent them from seeing that it is the wrong room. They want time 
really enter before they start 'acting'. They will advance a couple 
act seeing the audience, and leave in a completely phoney 

I remind the students that entering the wrong room is an experience 
: all have, and that we always know what to do, since we do 'some- 
thing'. I explain that I'm not asking the students to 'act', but just to do 
what they do in life. We have a radar which scans every new space for 
dangers, an early-warning system programmed-in millions of years 
as a protection against sabre-tooth tigers, or bigger amoebas or 
ever. It's therefore very unusual to refuse to look into the space 
; are entering. 

soon as the 'wrong room' exercise becomes 'real' they under- 
stand that a change of status is involved. You prepare a status for one 
situation, and have to alter it when suddenly confronted by the 
^expected one. I then set the students to predetermine the direction 


of the status change, and of course errors are often made. Someone 
trying to play low status may have to be told to smile, and if he smiles 
with both sets of teeth (an aggressive smile) he may have to be asked 
to show the top teeth only. People who want to rise in status may have 
to be told to turn their backs to us when they leave. Neither smiling 
nor turning your back is essential but it may help the student get the 
feeling. In difficult cases it helps to use videotape. 

A more complex version of this exercise is really a little play. I 
invented it at RADA when I was asked if I could push the students into 
more emotional experiences. It's for one character — let's say he's a 
teacher, although he could be any profession. He arrives late carrying 
the register and a pair of glasses. He says something like 'All right, 
quiet there, now then', treating us as the class. As he is about to read 
the register he puts the glasses on, and sees not his class, but a meeting 
of the school Governors. He apologises, dropping in status frantically, 
and struggles to the door, which sticks. He wrestles with it and after 
about ten seconds it comes free. The actor feels a very great drop in 
status when the door jams. It takes him back to feelings he may not 
have experienced since childhood: feelings of impotence, and of the 
hostility of objects. 

Once outside, the actor either stops the exercise, or if he feels brave, 
re-enters, and plays the scene again and again. This exercise can turn 
people into crumbling wrecks in a very short time, and for actors who 
like to 'pretend' without actually feeling anything, it can be a revela- 
tion. One Scandinavian actor who apparently had never really 
achieved anything because of his self-consciousness, suddenly 'under- 
stood' and became marvellous. It was for him a moment of satori. The 
terrifying thing is that there's no limit. For example: 

'Why didn't anyone tell me that the room had been changed? I 
just made a complete fool of myself in front of the Governors.' 
(Puts on glasses. Sees Governors.) 

'Augh! I . . . I . . . what can I say. Mr Headmaster . . . please . . . 
I ... oh ... do excuse me . . . The door. I'm afraid ... it sticks ... the 
damp weather, you ... ah ... so ... so sorry.' 
(Grovels out. Re-enters.) 

'Oh God, it's nice to find someone in the staff-room. Is there any 
tea on? The most embarrassing thing just happened to me . . . I . . .' 
(Puts on glasses. Sees Governors.) 

'Oh . . . I . . . what must you think of me ... I ... I seem to be 
having some sort of breakdown . . . haven't been well lately. So sorry 
to interrupt ... The ... the door . . . THE DOOR! Augh! ... I'm 


... outrageous conduct . . . please understand . . . er . . . er . . .* 
(Exit. Re-enters.) 
'It's nice of you to see me at such short notice. I know that psy- 
sts are very busy . . . I . . 

(Puts on glasses. Sees Governors.) 
'. . . I know it was wrong to commit suicide, God, but . . .' 

(Puts on glasses. Sees Governors.) 
I wouldn't push anyone into playing this game, and it must be under- 
stood by the class that people are allowed to get upset, and are not to 
be punished by being considered exhibitionistic or cissy. 

I repeat all status exercises in gibberish, just to make it quite clear 
that the things said are not as important as the status played. If I ask 
two actors to meet, with one playing high, and one playing low, and to 
reverse the status while talking an imaginary language, the audience 
i amazingly. We don't know what's being said, and neither do the 
actors, but the status reversal is enough to enthral us. If you've seen 
great comedians working in a language you don't understand you'll 
know what I mean. 

I get the actors to learn short fragments of text and play every 
possible status on them. For example, A is late, and B has been waiting 
for him. 

A: Hallo. 
B: Hallo. 

A: Been waiting long? 
B: Ages. 

The implication is that B lowers A, but any status can be played. If 
i play high then A might stroll on with 'all the time in the world' 
and say 'Hallo' as if he wasn't late at all. B might hold eye contact and 
say 'Hallo' with emphasis. A might look away airily and say 'Been 
; long? with a sigh as if B were being 'difficult'. 'Ages,' says B, 
staring at him, or walking off as if expecting A to follow. If both are 
to play low, then A might arrive running; B might stand up, bend the 
head forwards and give a low-status smile. 'Hallo,' says A breathlessly, 
showing embarrassment that B has stood. 'Hallo,' replies B, also a 
little breathless. 'Been waiting long?' asks A with anxiety. 'Ages,' says 
B with a weak laugh as if making a feeble joke. 
Here's a dialogue taking place in 'Sir's' office. 

sir : Come in. Ah, sit down Smith. I suppose you know 
why I sent for you? 
smith : No, Sir. 

(Sir pushes a newspaper across the desk.) 


smith : I was hoping you wouldn't see that. 

sir: You know we can't employ anyone with a criminal 

smith: Won't you reconsider? 

sir: Good-bye, Smith. 
smith : I never wanted your bloody job anyway. 
(Mat Smith.) 

If Smith plays high, then saying 'Won't you reconsider' gives him an 
enormous resistance to work against. When Sir says 'Good-bye, 
Smith' low status it produces a gripping scene. For Smith to say 'I 
didn't want your bloody job anyway' low status, it may be necessary 
for him to burst into tears. 

One interesting complication in such a scene is that Smith will 
have to play low status to the space, even when playing high status to 
Sir, or it'll look like his office. Conversely, Sir must play high status to 
the space, even when playing low status to Smith. If he doesn't he'll 
look like an intruder. 'Move about,' I say. 'Answer the telephone. 
Walk over to the window.' 

Status is played to anything, objects as well as people. If you enter 
an empty waiting-room you can play high or low status to the furniture. 
A king may play low status to a subject, but not to his palace. 

An actor is waiting on stage for someone to enter and play a scene 
with him. 'What status are you playing?' I ask. He says, 'I haven't 
started yet.' 'Play low status to the bench,' I say. 

He looks around him as if he was in a park that he suspects may be 
private. Then he 'sees' a pigeon, and mimes feeding it, rather un- 
convincingly. 'Play low status to the pigeon,' I say, and immediately 
his mime improves, and the scene is believable. More 'pigeons' arrive, 
and one lands on the bench and starts pecking at the bread he's hold- 
ing. Another lands on his arm, and then shits on him. He wipes the 
mess off surreptitiously. And so on. He doesn't need another actor to 
play status scenes with. He can do it with anything in the environ- 

I give students a very strong feeling of 'status' by making them use 
only the way they look and sound to ward off attacks. I call it 'non- 
defence', but really it's one of the best of all defences. Imagine two 
siblings, one of whom (A) lives in the flat of the other (B). B enters and 
asks if any letters have arrived for him. A says that there is one on the 
sideboard. B picks it up and sees it's been opened. A is always opening 
B's letters which causes conflict between them. The scene will prob- 
ably develop something like this : 


B: Why did you open my letter? 
A: Is it open? 

B: You always open my letters. 
A: I don't know who did it. 
B: No one else has been here! 
B will probably start to push A about, and I'll have to stop the scene 
for fear that they might hurt each other. 

I start the scene again, but tell A that he is to admit everything, 
while playing low status. 

B: Did you open my letter? 
A: Yes. 
B stops the attack. He pauses. 
B: Yes? 
A: Yes. 

B : Well, what did you do it for? 

A: I wanted to see what was inside. 
B is checked again. He may step backwards. He may even retreat to 
the furthest wall and lean against it. I encourage him to be angry, and 
to close in on A. 

B: How dare you open my letters? 

A: You're right to be angry. I'm a shit. 

B: I told you never to open my letters. 

A : I always do it. 

B: You do? 

finds it increasingly difficult to press home his attack. If he starts to 
shake A, then A must cry and keep nodding his head, and saying 
'You're right, you're right.' B can of course override his instincts — 
human beings do unfortunately have this ability — but the more he 
attacks, the more strongly a mysterious wind seems to be trying to 
blow him away. If A makes an error, and rises in status, then B closes 
in, but if the low status is maintained then B has to consciously 'force' 
his anger. 

B: Well, don't open them again. 
A: I poke my nose into everything. 
I've seen the low-status player leap about with joy and roll over 
and over on the floor after playing such a scene. It's exhilarating to be 
controlling the movements of the other person as if he were a puppet. 
When I explained that the more A accepted B's dominance the more 
powerfully B was deflected, B said, 'That's right. I thought, "Mother 
put him up to it." ' 
Non-defence is exploited by the wolf who exposes his neck and 


underbelly to a dominant wolf as a way of ending a losing battle. The 
top Wolf wants to bite, but can't. Some Congolese soldiers dragged two 
white journalists out of a jeep, shot one and were about to shoot the 
other when he burst into tears. They laughed and kicked him back to 
the jeep and let him drive away, while they waved and cheered. It was 
more satisfying to see the white man cry than to shoot him. 

Once non-defence has been mastered together with a low-status 
attitude, I teach it as a high-status exercise. The same kind of dialogue 
occurs : 

B: Did you open my letter? 

A: Yes. (Quite calmly, and sipping his coffee as if no 

attack was being made on him.) 
B: Yes? (Momentarily nonplussed.) 
A: I always open your letters. (Dismissively.) (And so 


At first hardly anyone can carry off such a scene. They pretend to 
be high status, but you can see that they're actually crumbling. I 
explain that they are making concealed low-status movements. An arm 
climbs up to the back of the chair as if wanting to flee from the ag- 
gressor, or to hold on for support. A foot starts to tap as if it wanted 
to go. 

The best solution I've found is to weight the situation heavily in 
favour of A. For example, I might set the scene in A's house, with B 
a guest who arrived late the night before, and now meets his host for 
the first time at breakfast. I make B's position worse by setting him the 
problem of asking A for his daughter's hand in marriage. Once A's 
position is reinforced in this way he should be able to maintain his 
high status while making no verbal defence at all. 
A: You must be John ... 
B: Er . . . yes. 

A : Cynthia tells me you want to marry her . . . 
B: That's right. 

A: Oh, by the way, a letter came for you this morning. 

B: It's been opened. 

A: I open everyone's letters. 

B: But it was addressed to me. 

A: It's from your mother. Some of it I thought most 

unsuitable. You'll see I crossed some paragraphs 

out . . . (And so on.) 

status 53 

4 Insults 

If you can get the students to insult each other play- 
fully, then the status work will become easier. Playing scenes with 
custard pies might be equally liberating, but I've never had the op- 
portunity. Once you can accept being insulted (the insult is the verbal 
equivalent of the custard pie), then you experience a great elation. 
The most rigid, self-conscious, and defensive people suddenly un- 

It's no good just asking the students to insult each other. It's too 
personal. If you've just called someone 'kipper feet' it's disconcerting 
to suddenly notice that he's flat-footed. If your ears stick out then it's 
upsetting to be called 'cloth ears'. On the other hand it is important 
for an actor to accept being insulted. The stage becomes an even more 
'dangerous' area if you can't admit your disabilities. The young George 
Devine cried once because the audience laughed when the character 
he was playing was referred to as thin. I remember a flat-chested 
actress being destroyed on stage because an adolescent shouted out 
that she was a man. The actor or improviser must accept his disa- 
bilities, and allow himself to be insulted, or he'll never really feel safe. 

My solution is to remove all responsibility for the choice of insult 
from the person doing the insulting. I divide the class into two halves, 
and get each group to write out a list of names that would insult 
people: fool, slut, pig, arsehole, jerk, meatface, dumbhead, flatfoot, 
pigeyes, skinny twat, bugeyes, buckteeth, cowflop, monkeyface, 
swine, rathead, shitnose, bullshitter, faggot. Only half the class know 
who suggested a particular insult, and each suggestion has already 
been stamped with half the class's approval. 
I put the lists aside and get the students to play 'shop'. 
'Can I help you?' 
'Yes, I'd like a pair of shoes.' 
'Would these do?' 
'I'd like another colour.' 

'I'm afraid this is the only colour we have, Sir.' 
'Ah. Well, perhaps a hat.' 
'I'm afraid that's my hat, Sir.' 
And so on — very boringly, with both actors 'blocking' the transaction 
in order to make the scene more 'interesting' (which it doesn't). 

I explain that I don't want them to make the scene 'interesting', 
that they are just to buy and sell something. They start again. 

'Can I help you?' 
'Just browsing.' 

'No you're not,' I say. 'Buy something.' 
'I want a hat.' 
'How about this one, Sir?' 
'Buy it,' I say. 
Til buy it.' 

'Two pounds ninety, Sir.' 

'I'm afraid I don't have any change, Sir.' 
'Yes you do,' I insist. 

I have to struggle with the actors before they will agree just to buy 
something and sell something. Then I get them to play the scene again, 
but adding the insults. I give them a list each, and get them to add an 
insult to the end of each sentence. This idea delights everyone, but it's 
very boring. 

'Can I help you, fool?' 
'Yes, bugeyes!' 

'Do you want a hat, slut?' (And so on.) 

I explain that insulting is of no interest. What we really want to see 
is someone being insulted. The interest we have in custard pies is in 
seeing them hit people. I tell them to repeat every insult in disbelief 
and outrage. As soon as they do this the performers get deeply in- 
volved and are often impossible to stop. People who are bound 
physically relax into a greater physical freedom. Gestures flow instead 
of being suddenly jerked to a stop. 

'Can I help you, pig?' 

'Pig! Why I . . . Flat-footed pig yourself!' 

'Me! Flat-footed pig! You call me a flat-footed pig, you . . you 
arsehole!' * 


'Buy something!' I shout. 

'I want a hat, buckteeth!' 

'Buckteeth! Try this for size, jerk!' 

'Jerk! Jerk! You call me jerk! I'll take it— Cowflop'' 

'Cowflop!* (And soon.) 

The insults must remain an ornamentation to the scene, they 
mustn't become the scene itself. Once this is understood they can be 
applied to any situation. If you keep changing the lists then the most 
terrible things will have been said to everybody. I then give one actor 
a list, and let the other actor make up his own, and I set up scenes with 


people. For example master-servant teams can meet, and 
suit in this way. But there must be some purpose they're trying to 
re as well as 'being insulted'. In my experience this game is very 
sing'. The status lowering is so drastic, and at the same time so 
surable, that ordinary status scenes hold fewer terrors. 
In the average school the teachers are supposed to inhibit their 
pupils, and the kind of healing openness typical of therapy groups 
simply isn't possible, but the game is useful even with censored lists, or 
even in gibberish. Gibberish imposes an acceptance of the insult, or 
no one can understand what's happening. The technique is to repeat 
the last sound of any gibberish sentence. 
'Gort intok horntow lipnol.' 
'Lipnol! Lipnol! Grant hork lop sonto inkutu!' 
'Inkutu! Die gorno inkutu! Krankon!' 
'Krankon!' (And so on.) 

This insult game can be played between two groups who slowly 
approach each other, but the teacher must ensure that every insult is 
received. Enormous energy is released, with individuals running 
forwards to hurl their insults, and then being dragged back by their 
friends. The target of the insults should be the opposing group, not 
individual members. The game usually ends with actors standing face 
to face and screaming at each other, and everyone having a very good 
time. If they've got 'high' on the game, you can make them repeat it in 

the word to the audience. 

5 Status Specialists 

If you wish to teach status interactions, it's necessary 
to understand that however willing the student is consciously, there 
may be very strong subconscious resistances. Making the student safe, 
and getting him to have confidence in you, are essential. You then 
have to work together with the student, as if you were both trying to 
alter the behaviour of some third person. It's also important that the 
student who succeeds at playing a status he feels to be alien should be 
instantly rewarded, praised and admired. It's no use just giving the 
exercises and expecting them to work. You have to understand where 
the resistance is, and devise ways of getting it to crumble. Many 
teachers don't recognise that there's a problem because they only 
exploit the 'preferred' status. In a bad drama school it's possible to 
play your 'preferred' status all the time, since they cast you to type, 


exploiting what you can do, instead of widening your range. In the 
professional theatre actors divide up roughly into high-status and low- 
status specialists. The actors' directory Spotlight used to have the 
high-status specialists at the front (called 'straight'), followed by the 
low-status specialists (called 'character actors'), followed by children, 
and then dogs. This isn't as bad as it sounds, but it's symptomatic of 
the tendency for actors to overspecialise. A proper training for actors 
would teach ail types of transaction. 

Some problems: there are students who will report no change of 
sensation when they alter their eye-contact patterns. If you observe 
them closely you'll see that the ones who always play low status in life 
won't ever hold eye contact long enough to feel dominant. When high- 
status specialists break eye contact and glance back, they'll be holding 
the glance back for at least a second, which is too long. You may have to 
precisely control the length of time that they look before they experience 
the change of sensation. Then they'll say, 'But it feels wrong.' This 
feeling of wrongness is the one they have to learn as being correct. 

I remember a girl who always played high status in improvisations, 
and who had never experienced safety and warmth as a performer. 
When I asked her to put a short 'er' in front of each sentence she used 
the long 'eeeerrrrr' but denied she was doing it. When I asked her to 
move her head as she talked she moved it in an abstract way, as if 
watching a fly circling in front of her. I asked her to play low status 
with an expert low-status improviser, but she held on to herself tightly 
with her arms and crossed her legs as if refusing to let her partner 
'invade' her. I asked her to unfold and then to tilt her head and sud- 
denly she was transformed — we wouldn't have recognised her. She 
became soft and yielding and really seemed to enjoy the feelings that 
flooded into her, and she acted with feeling and rapport for the first 
time. Now that she's learned to play low status with a low-status 
partner she can learn to play it with a high-status partner. 

Another student refused to play high status in anything but a 
wooden manner. He said that he lived in a working-class area and that 
he didn't want to be stuck-up. I explained that I wasn't trying to 
remove his present skills, which were very necessary, but only to add 
a few new ones. He believed that it was necessary to play low status 
within his working-class community, not realising that you can play 
high or low in any situation. His problem is that he plays low status 
well and he won't experiment with other skills. 

I asked him to play a scene in which he was to tell his father he had 
VD. I chose the scene in order to stir him up, and involve his real 

status 57 

feelings. All young men have anxieties in that area. He acted out a scene 
with no conviction at all, and tried to think up 'clever things' to say. 

'I'll give you the dialogue,' I said. 'Enter. Go to the window. Look 
out, then turn and say you've got VD.' 

He did this. He looked out of the window and immediately made 
trivial movements, and dropped down in status. 

I stopped him. I explained that if he turned from the window, 
looked at his father and didn't move his head, then he'd experience 
exactly the sensations he was trying to avoid. I said that he mustn't 
try to suppress the head movements but that he must be aware when he 
does them, and then somehow feel so dominant that he no longer 
needs to make them. When he repeats the scene it's his father who 
breaks eye contact and starts to crumble. From this beginning the 
student can learn to play characters of any social class, and make them 
high or low. 

6 Space 

I can't avoid talking about 'space' any longer, since 
status is basically territorial. Space is very difficult to talk about, but 
easy to demonstrate. 

When I was commissioned to write my first play I'd hardly been 
inside a theatre, so I watched rehearsals to get the feel of it. I was 
struck by the way space flowed around the actors like a fluid. As the 
actors moved I could feel imaginary iron filings marking out the force 
fields. This feeling of space was strongest when the stage was un- 
cluttered, and during the coffee breaks, or when they were discussing 
some difficulty. When they weren't acting, the bodies of the actors 
continually readjusted. As one changed position so all the others 
altered their postures. Something seemed to flow between them. 
When they were 'acting' each actor would pretend to relate to the 
others, but his movements would stem from himself. They seemed 
'encapsulated'. In my view it's only when the actor's movements are 
related to the space he's in, and to the other actors, that the audience 
feel 'at one' with the play. The very best actors pump space out and 
suck it in, or at least that's what it feels like. When the movements are 
not spontaneous but 'intellectual' the production may be admired, 
but you don't see the whole audience responding in empathy with the 
movements of the actors. 

Here's Stanislavsky describing a performance by Salvini, an actor 
who obviously used space in the way I mean : 


'Salvini approached the platform of the Doges, thought a little 
while, concentrated himself and, unnoticed by any of us, took the 
enure audience of the great theatre into his hands. It seemed that he 
did this with a single gesture-that he stretched his hand without 
looking into the public, grasped all of us in his palm, and held us 
there as if we were ants or flies. He closed bis fist, and we felt the 
breath of death; he opened it, and we felt the warmth of bliss. We were 

in his power, and we will remain in it all our lives ' 

The movement teacher Yat Malmgren told me that as a child he'd 
discovered that he didn't end at the surface of his body, but was 
actually an oval 'Swiss cheese' shape. To me, this is 'closed-eye' space 
and you experience it when you shut your eyes and let your body feel 
outwards into the surrounding darkness. Yat also talked about people 
who were cut off from sensing areas of themselves. 'He has no arms ' he 
would say, or 'She has no legs', and you could see what he meant 
When I investigated myself I found many areas that I wasn't ex- 
periencing, and my feelings are still defective. What I did find was 
another shape besides the 'Swiss cheese' shape: a parabola sweeping 
ahead of me like a comet's tail. When I panic, this parabola crushes 
in. In stage fright space contracts into a narrow tunnel down which 
you can just about walk without bumping into things. In cases of 
extreme stage fright the space is like a plastic skin pressing on to you 
and making your body rigid and bound. The opposite of this is seen 
when a great actor makes a gesture, and it's as if his arm has swept 
right over the heads of the people sitting at the back of the audience 
Many acting teachers have spoke of 'radiations', and they often 
sound like mystics. Here's Jean-Louis Barrault: 

'Just as the earth is surrounded by an atmosphere, the living human 
being is surrounded by a magnetic aura which makes contact with the 
external objects without any concrete contact with the human body. 
This aura, or atmosphere, varies in depth according to the vitality of 
human beings 

'The mime must first of all be aware of this boundless contact with 
things. There is no insulating layer of air between the man and the 
outside world. Any man who moves about causes ripples in the 
ambient world in the same way a fish does when it moves in the water.' 
(The Theatre of Jean-Louis Barrault, Barrie and Rockcliff, 196 1 ) 

This isn't very scientific, but like all magical language it does com- 
municate a way an actor can 'feel'. If I stand two students face to face 
and about a foot apart they're likely to feel a strong desire to change 
their body position. If they don't move they'll begin to feel love or 

status 59 

hate as their 'space' streams into each other. To prevent these feelings 
they'll modify their positions until their space flows out relatively 
unhindered, or they'll move back so that the force isn't so powerful. 
High-status players (like high-status seagulls) will allow their space 
to flow into other people. Low-status players will avoid letting their 
space flow into other people. Kneeling, bowing and prostrating one- 
self are all ritualised low-status ways of shutting off your space. If we 
wish to humiliate and degrade a low-status person we attack him while 
refusing to let him switch his space off. A sergeant-major will stand 
a recruit to attention and then scream at his face from about an inch 
away. Crucifixion exploits this effect, which is why it's such a power- 
ful symbol as compared to, say, boiling someone in oil. 

Imagine a man sitting neutrally and symmetrically on a bench. If he 
crosses his left leg over his right then you'll see his space flowing over 
to the right as if his leg was an aerofoil. If he rests his right arm along 
the back of the bench you'll see his space flowing out more strongly. 
If he turns his head to the right, practically all his space will be flowing 
in this same direction. Someone who is sitting neutrally in the 'beam' 
will seem lower-status. Every movement of the body modifies its space. 
If a man who is sitting neutrally crosses his left wrist over his right the 
space flows to his right, and vice versa. It's very obvious that the top 
hand gives the direction, but the class are amazed. The difference 
seems so trivial, yet they can see it's a quite strong effect. 

The body has reflexes that protect it from attack. We have a 'fear- 
crouch' position in which the shoulders lift to protect the jugular and 
the body curls forward to protect the underbelly. It's more effective 
against carnivores than against policemen jabbing at your kidneys, but 
it evolved a long time ago. The opposite to this fear crouch is the 
'cherub posture', which opens all the planes of the body : the head 
turns and tilts to offer the neck, the shoulders turn the other way to 
expose the chest, the spine arches slightly backwards and twists so 
that the pelvis is in opposition to the shoulders exposing the under- 
belly — and so on. This is the position I usually see cherubs carved in, 
and the opening of the body planes is a sign of vulnerability and 
tenderness, and has a powerful effect on the onlooker. High-status 
people often adopt versions of the cherub posture. If they feel under 
attack they'll abandon it and straighten, but they won't adopt the 
fear crouch. Challenge a low-status player and he'll show some tend- 
ency to slide into postures related to the fear crouch. 

When the highest-status person feels most secure he will be the 
most relaxed person, as for example in the opening scenes of Kozint- 


sev's film of King Lear. A solemn ceremony is arranged, the daughters 
take their places, an atmosphere of expectancy is built up, and then 
Lear (Juri Jarvet) enters as if he owns the place, warms his hands at 
the fire, and 'makes himself at home'. The effect is to enormously 
elevate Lear in status. Lears who strain to look powerful and threaten- 
ing in this opening scene miss the point, which is that Lear is so 
confident, and trustful, that he willingly divides his kingdom and sets 
in motion his own destruction. 

Status can also be affected by the shape of the space you are in. 
The corners of couches are usually high-status, and high-status 
'winners' are allowed to take them. If you leave a car in the middle of 
a great wilderness there is a moment when you 'move out of the space 
of the car'. In the wilderness the effect is very strong, for people 
always like to be beside objects. Thrones are usually set against walls 
and often have a canopy set high up below the ceiling— possibly a 
relic of the need to swing up into trees in emergencies. 

Imagine an empty beach. The first family to arrive can sit any- 
where, but they'll either take up position against some rocks, or sit a 
third of the way in — supposing it's all equally sandy. In my part of 
England, where there are many small beaches, the next family to 
appear might well move on to the next beach, regarding the first one 
as 'claimed'. If they do move in they'll stake out 'their part of the 
beach', away from the first group. If they sat close to the first group 
then they'd have to make friends, which could be difficult. If they sat 
close without making friends, then the first group would react with 
alarm. 'Close' is a concept related to the amount of space available. 
Once the beach fills up with people you can sit very close to the original 
family. The space people demand around them contracts as more 
people are added. Finally as the beach reaches saturation people stare 
at the sky, or roll in to face their friends, or cover their faces with 
newspaper or whatever. 

People will travel a long way to visit a 'view'. The essential clement 
of a good view is distance, and preferably with nothing human in the 
immediate foreground. When we stand on a hill and look across fifty 
miles of emptiness at the mountains, we are experiencing the pleasure 
of having our space flow out unhindered. As people come in sight of a 
view, it's normal for their posture to improve and for them to breathe 
better. You can see people remarking on the freshness of the air, and 
taking deep breaths, although it's the same air as it was just below 
the brow of the hill. Trips to the sea, and our admiration of mountains 
are probably symptoms of overcrowding. 


Approach distances are related to space. If I approach someone on 
open moorland I have to raise an arm and shout 'excuse me' as soon 
as I'm within shouting distance. In a crowded street I can actually 
brush against people without having to interact. 

Imagine that two strangers are approaching each other along an 
empty street. It's straight, hundreds of yards long and with wide 
pavements. Both strangers are walking at an even pace, and at some 
point one of them will have to move aside in order to pass. You can 
sec this decision being made a hundred yards or more before it 
actually 'needs' to be. In my view the two people scan each other for 
signs of status, and then the lower one moves aside. If they think 
they're equal, both move aside, but the position nearest the wall is 
actually the strongest. If each person believes himself to be dominant 
a very curious thing happens. They approach until they stop face to 
face, and do a sideways dance, while muttering confused apologies. If 
a little old half-blind lady wanders into your path this 'mirror' dance 
doesn't happen. You move out of her way. It's only when you think the 
other person is challenging that the dance occurs, and such incidents 
are likely to stick in the mind. I remember doing it in a shop doorway 
with a man who took me by my upper arms and moved me gently out 
of his path. It still rankles. Old people who don't want to give way, and 
who cling to the status they used to have, will walk along the street 
hugging the wall, and 'not noticing' anyone who approaches them. If, 
as an experiment, you also hug the wall very funny scenes occur when 
you stop face to face— but the sideways dance doesn't happen because 
you're conscious of what you're doing. Old people in, say, Hamburg, 
often collide with young Britishers in the street, because they expect 
the young to step aside for them. Similarly, a high-status stripper will 
walk stark naked into a stagehand who stands in her way. In the Russian 
Hamlet film there's a moment where Hamlet finds his way moment- 
arily obstructed by a servant and he smashes him down. When you 
watch a bustling crowd from above it's amazing that they don't all 
bump into each other. I think it's because we're all giving status sig- 
nals, and exchanging subliminal status challenges all the time. The 
more submissive person steps aside. 

This means that when two improvisers pass on a bare stage it may 
be possible to say where they are, even though they may not have 
decided on a location. The class will agree that the actors look as if 
they're in a hospital corridor, or in a crowded street, or passing on a 
narrow pavement. We judge this from the distance at which they 
make the first eye contact, and from the moment that they 'switch off' 


iW n 3 ^ 0 ^ bcf ° re paSSiDg - The Ckss not b»w they 
^nlT aCt0fS 111 3 partiCular environme nt. but there is often a 
general agreement. When actors and directors misjudge social dfcr 
aoces or distort them for 'dramatic effect' the audi no Twosome 
level, know that the work is not truthful. ' mC 

znhLT? T h 1 S ? dem 311 a PP reciation "Social distance is to 
get h,m to hand out leaflets in the street. You can't just thrust vour 
hand out at people, you have to establish that you're gi ting out leaflets 
and h en present one „ ^ ^ « J" leaflets 

student acts bored, and says 'Come on, we'll be late', and generallvt 

sometimes extremely mteresting scenes take place, but if the studen* 
re nervous they will probably m.stime the.nin 1 approach Tht X 
looks as ,f they are invisible. You can see them greeting people who 
Sr^f £X1St - ThC ad -4 Sg n t 
Zlt " f 1 SmiSS ^ Pe ° p,e ' S react,ons as 'untruthful'. 
Another way of opemng people's eyes to the way the body positions 

v ol t°rr Ce ° r k SUbmission ^ controlling s'pace i to'ask two 

SSSSfJS t r Z f CI students study to MaQ y stude «s ^ 

wkh th^r T ' ? f y ° U ^ ^ <Statues '> lift 'hem, together 
with then- chairs, and place them on the opposite sides of each other 
the change ,s dramat.c. Their 'space' which seemed so 'natural' looks' 
wend, and everyone can see how carefully they had adjusted 
movements to fit in with each other. ' ^ 

I ask students (for homework!) to watch grouns of n, n .i, i 

soton T t0 D ° dCe h ° W ^Tchlg« P wh I 

someone leam or JOms a group. If you watch two , e JJ? g and 

7 Master-Servant 

audiences is J^^S^^ ^ immeDSe pIeasurc t0 
ie master-servant scene. A dramatist who adapts a story 


for the stage will often add a servant, especially if it's a comedy; 
Sophocles gave Silenus as a slave to the Cyclops, Moliere gave Don 
Juan a servant, and so on. The master-servant scene seems to be funny 
and entertaining in all cultures — even people who have never seen a 
manservant have no difficulty in appreciating the nuances. 

The relationship is not necessarily one in which the servant plays 
low and the master plays high. Literature is full of scenes in which the 
servant refuses to obey the master, or even beats him and chases him 
out of the house. The whole point of the master-servant scene is that 
both partners should keep see-sawing. Dramatists go to ludicrous 
lengths to devise situations in which the servant actually has to pretend 
to be the master, and the master to pretend to be the servant ! 

If I ask two students to play a master-servant scene they will almost 
always look like a parent helping a child, or one friend helping another 
friend, or at best, as if some incompetent person is standing in for the 
real servant who's off sick. Once they've been trained the servant can 
throttle the master while remaining visibly the servant. This is very 
pleasing to the audience, even though they may have no idea of the 
forces operating. 

I teach that a master-servant scene is one in which both parties 
act as if all the space belonged to the master. (Johnstone's law!) 
An extreme example would be the eighteenth-century scientist Henry 
Cavendish, who is reported to have fired any servant he caught sight 
of! (Imagine the hysterical situations: servants scuttling like rabbits, 
hiding in grandfather clocks and ticking, getting stuck in huge vases.) 
People who are not literally masters and servants may act out the roles, 
henpecked husbands and dominant wives for example. The contrasts 
between the status played between the characters and the status played 
to the space fascinates the audience. 

When the masters are not present, then the servants can take full 
possession of the space, sprawl on the furniture, drink the brandy, and 
so on. You may have noticed how 'shifty' chauffeurs look when their 
masters are away. They can smoke, chat together and treat the cars as 
their 'own', but being in the street they feel 'exposed'. They have to 
keep a 'weather eye out'. When the master is present, the servant must 
take care at all times not to dominate the space. One might imagine 
that since the servants have work to do, everything possible should be 
done to see that they're kept 'fresh' and at ease, but a servant is not a 
worker in this sense. You can work for someone without being 'their 
servant'. A servant's primary function is to elevate the status of the 
master. Footmen can't lean against the wall, because it's the master's 


wall. Servants must make no unnecessary noise or movement, because 
it's the master's air they're intruding on. 

The preferred position for a servant is usually at the edge of the 
master's 'parabola of space'. This is so that at any moment the master 
can confront him and dominate him. The exact distance the servant 
stands from the master depends on his duties, his position in the 
hierarchy, and the size of the room. 

When the servant's duties take him into close proximity with the 
master he must show that he invades the master's space 'unwillingly'." 
If you have to confront the master in order to adjust his tie you stand 
back as far as possible, and you may incline your head. If you're 
helping with his trousers you probably do it from the side. Crossing in 
front of the master the servant may 'shrink' a little, and he'll try to 
keep a distance. Working behind the master, brushing his coat, he 
can be as close as he likes, and visibly higher, but he mustn't stay out 
of sight of the master unless his duties require it (or unless he is very 
low status). 

The servant has to be quiet, to move neatly, and not to let his arms 
or legs intrude into the space around him. Servants' costumes are 
usually rather tight so that their bodies take up a minimum of space. 
Other things being equal, the servant should be near a door so that he 
can be instantly dismissed without having to walk round the master. 
You can see servants edging surreptitiously into this position. 

It's always interesting for the audience when the master tries to 
coax the servant out of his role. 

'Ah, Perkins, sit down, will you.' 

'In . . . in your chair, Sir?' 

'Certainly certainly, what will you have?' 

'Er . . . er . . .' 

'Whisky? Soda?' 

'Anything you wish, Sir.' 

'Oh come on, man, you must have some preference. Don't sit on the 
edge of the chair, Perkins, relax, make yourself comfortable. I'd like 
your advice, actually.' 

And so on. It's interesting because the audience knows that if the 
servant does step out of his role, there'll be trouble. 

'How dare you take a cigar, Perkins !' 

'But Sir, you told me to make myself at home, Sir !' 
If the master and the servant agree to step out of their roles everyone 
else will be furious— as when Queen Victoria made friends with John 


I get my students to mime dressing and undressing each other as 
masters and servants. It's very easy to see when the space is wrong, 
and they suddenly 'catch on'. I also play scenes with nice masters and 
horrible servants, and nasty masters with flustered servants. You can 
improvise quite long plays by putting together a structure of such 
scenes (this is how the Commedia dell' Arte scenarios worked). For 
example: (1) nice master, nasty servant; (2) nasty master, nice servant; 
(3) both teams interrelate and quarrel; (4) Team One prepares for 
duel; (5) Team Two prepares for duel; (6) the duel. 

On a good night the Theatre Machine could improvise a half-hour 
comedy based on this structure. Sometimes the servants have to fight 
the actual duel, sometimes the duel is fought on piggyback with the 
servants as horses, and so on. 

It's very easy to invent master-servant games, but there are some 
that are particularly important for public improvisers. One is 'keeping 
the servant on the hop'. In this game the master objects to everything 
the servant is, or says, or does. The servant accepts the master's 
statement, and then deflects it. 

'Smith! Why are you wearing that ridiculous uniform?' 

'It's your birthday, Sir.* 
This is a correct answer. 'I'm not wearing a uniform, Sir' rejects the 
master's statement, and is therefore incorrect. 'You told me to, Sir' is 
also wrong because it's implying that the challenge shouldn't have 
been made. 

You can always recognise a correct reply, because the master 
'boggles' for a moment, as his mind readjusts. 
'Your coffee, Sir.' 
'Where's the sugar?' 
'It's in, Sir.' 

A correct answer, since the servant has accepted that the master takes 
sugar, and that there isn't any visible. To say 'What about your diet, 
Sir?' or 'You don't take sugar, Sir' would be less correct, and feebler. 

Another game involves the servant getting himself into trouble. 

'Why are you wearing that uniform, Smith?' 

'I burned the other one, Sir.' 


'Where's the sugar?' 

'I've eaten the last lump, Sir.' 

This game also generates its own content. 

'Good morning, Jenkins.' 

'I'm afraid it's not morning, Sir. I forgot to wake you.' 


'Augh! Four o'clock in the afternoon. Don't you know what day it 

'Your coronation, Sir.' 

There is a lazzi that I use in teaching this game. It's a particular 
pattern of master-servant dialogue in which the servant is so guilty that 
he 'overconfesses'. I got it from Moliere. 

'Ah Perkins ! I have a bone to pick with you !' 

'Not the rhubarb patch, Sir.' 

'What about the rhubarb patch?' 

'I let the goat in by mistake, Sir.' 

'You let my goat eat my rhubarb ! You know I have a passion for 
rhubarb! What will we do with all the custard we ordered?' 
'I'm planting some more, Sir.' 

'So I should hope. No! It's much worse than mere rhubarb!' 
'Oh, Sir! The dog!' 
'My dog!' 

'Yes, Sir. I couldn't stand it following me around and sniffing me and 
messing everywhere, and, and it wetting me when you made me stand 
to attention at parties, and them all laughing. That's why I did it, Sir!' 

'Did what?' 

'Why, nothing, Sir.' 

'Did what? What did you do to poor Towser?' 
T . . . I . . .' 
'Go on!' 

'Poisoned it, Sir.' 
'You poisoned my dog!' 
'Don't hit me, Sir.' 

'Hit you! Hanging would be too good for you. Why it's worse than 
the thing I wanted you for in the first place. You'd better make a clean 
breast of it.' 

'But what have I done?' 

'You've been found out, Perkins.' 

'Oh no, Sir.' 

'Oh yes!' 

*Oh, Sir.' 


'She shouldn't have told you, Sir.' 

'She got me in the bathroom, Sir. She swore she'd scream and tell 
you that I'd attacked her, Sir. She tore her clothes off, Sir.' 
'What! What!' 


The literary value may not be high, but audiences laugh a lot. 

Getting an actor to play both parts in a master-servant scene can 
accelerate the skills. When the actor is wearing a hat he's the master, 
then he removes it and leaps into the position in which he's been 
imagining the servant, and plays the servant role. The moment he 
can't think what to say he changes roles. He can throttle himself, and 
beat himself up, or praise himself, and he 'blocks' the action far less. 
It's actually easier to play master-servant scenes as solos. The mind 
has an ability to split itself readily into several people — Frederick 
Perls got people to play 'top dog' and 'underdog' in a similar way. 

An excellent way to play master-servant scenes is to let one actor 
do both voices, the other mouthing the words that are supposed to be 
his. This sounds very difficult, but it's actually easier to sustain long 
scenes in this way. At first the actor who's mouthing the words will 
play a passive role. It's necessary to prod him into developing the 
action. If he picks up a chair and threatens the master with it, then 
the master will have to say something appropriate, like 'Where's the 
money you owe me, Sir?' Perhaps the master will beat the servant up 
and do all the screams and pleas for mercy himself. 

If you experiment with master-servant scenes you eventually 
realise that the servant could have a servant, and the master could have 
a master, and that actors could be instandy assembled into pecking 
orders by just numbering them. You can then improvise very com- 
plicated group scenes on the spur of the moment. 

I introduce pecking orders as clown games, oversimplifying the 
procedures, and creating complex absurdities which 'cartoon' real life. 
Orders and blame are passed one way along the hierarchy, excuses and 
problems are passed the other way. So far as possible each person is to 
teract with the one next to him in rank. Audiences never seem to tire 
dialogue like this: 
t: Chair! 
2: Chair! 
3: Get a chair! 
4: Yes, Sir. 
1 : What's happening? 
2: I'll just check, Sir. Where's the chair? 
3: Number Four's getting it, Sir. 
4: Beg pardon, but I can't find one, Sir. 
3: He can't find one! 

2: 'Sir!' How dare you address me without calling me 


3: Yes, Sir! Number Four reports that there is no chair, 

1 : What's going on here, Number Two? 
2 : There's no chair, Sir. 

IS No chair! This is monstrous! Have someone crouch 

so that I can sit on them ! 
2: Number Three, have Number Four crouch so that 

Number One can sit on him. 
4 : Permission to speak, Sir ! (And so on.) 
The patterns become even clearer if you give each actor a long 
balloon with which to hit people. If Number One hits Number Two, 
Number Two apologises to him, and hits Number Three, and so on. 
Number Four, who can't hit anyone ducks, or cries, or bites his lip, or 
dies, or whatever. Each person can also try to make faces at anyone 
'above' him, without getting caught (if possible). If Number One sees 
Number Three make a face at Number Two, he informs Number Two, 
and so on. This may look very tedious on the page, but these simple 
rules produce amazing permutations. 

One of the craziest 'clown games' is a version of 'taking the hat'. 
I've seen spectators collapsing with laughter. I start the game by 
taking four students and numbering them one to four. Each wears a 
soft trilby hat. First, Number One takes Number Two's hat and throws 
it at his feet. Number Two reacts with horror and embarrassment and 
shrieks for Number Three to pick the hat up and replace it. Number 
Two then takes Number Three's hat — and so on, except that Number 
Four will have to put his own hat on. 

I then tell Number One that although he prefers to take Number 
Two's hat, he can in fact take anybody's. Number Two similarly 
prefers to take Number Three's, but he can also take Number Four's. 

Once this pattern is almost learnt, I let people weave about and try 
not to get their hats taken. And I insist that the hats must be thrown 
at the feet. People have a strong impulse to throw or kick the hats 
right away, which breaks up the group and spoils the crazy patterns. 
If you can keep the actors 'high' on the game they will now be using 
their bodies like excellent physical comedians, they will have a mar- 
vellous 'rapport' with each other, and absolutely no trace of self- 
consciousness. I make them play a scene while continuing this insane 
activity. I send them outside and get them to enter as if burgling a 
house in which people are asleep upstairs. Or I get them to pack for 
the holidays, or interact with another pecking order who are also 
'taking hats'. Number One will probably have to throw insane fits of 


rage to get anything done, but it's more important that the scene is 
played than the hat game 'demonstrated'. You can't even teach this 
game unless you yourself are 'high' and expressing great drive and 

Actors should become expert at each stage of a pecking order. 
There will be actors who can at first only play one role really well. 
Videotape is useful in explaining to them where their behaviour is 

Number One in a pecking order has to make sure that everything is 
functioning properly. Anything that irritates him must be suppressed. 
At all times everything must be organised for his personal content- 
ment. He can also add his own rules, insisting that absolute silence 
should be maintained at all times, or that the word 'is' should be 
abolished from the language, or whatever. Desmond Morris, in The 
Human Zqo (Cape, 1969 ; Corgi, 1971) gives 'ten golden rules' for people 
who are Number Ones. He says, 'They apply to all leaders, from 
baboons to modern presidents and prime ministers.' They are: 

1. You must clearly display the trappings, postures and gestures of 

2. In moments of active rivalry you must threaten your subordinates 

3. In moments of physical challenge you (or your delegates) must 
be able forcibly to overpower your subordinates. 

4. If a challenge involves brain rather than brawn you must be able 
outwit your subordinates. 

5. You must suppress squabbles that break out between your 

6. You must reward your immediate subordinates by permitting 
them to enjoy the benefits of their high ranks. 

7. You must protect the weaker members of the group from undue 

You must make decisions concerning the social activities of your 

9. You must reassure your extreme subordinates from time to time. 
10. You must take the initiative in repelling threats or attacks 
arising from outside your group. 

Number Four has to keep Number Three happy while avoiding the 
attention of One or Two. If addressed by One or Two he must avoid 
any appearance of wanting to usurp Three's position. If the general 
s peaks to a private we should expect the private to keep glancing at the 
sergeant. If the general lowers the sergeant the private may be secretly 


delighted but he'll have to hide it, and at the time he might be ex- 
pected to find it embarrassing. Number Four has to be an expert at 
making excuses, and in evading responsibility. He must also be invent- 
ing problems to pass up the pecking order. 

Basically, One imposes aims and tries to get them fulfilled, while 
Four discovers that the house is on fire, or the enemy approaching, or 
that there's only three minutes' oxygen left, and so on. Two and Three 
are mostly concerned with maintaining their respective positions, and 
with the communication of information up and down the fine. 

More naturalistic pecking-order work can be introduced as 'status 
towers'. Someone begins with some low-status activity, and each 
person who enters the scene plays a step higher. Or you can start at 
the top and add each person one step down. 

It is the lack of pecking-order that makes most crowd scenes look 
unconvincing. The 'extras' mill about trying to look 'real', and the 
spaces between them are quite phoney. In films where Mafia bandits 
wait on a hillside while their leader confers with someone, you can see 
that the director has spaced them out 'artistically', or has just said 
'spread yourself out'. By just numbering people in hierarchies so that 
they knew what status they were, such errors could be avoided. 

8 Maximum Status Gaps 

In life, status gaps are often exaggerated to such an 
extent that they become comical. Heinrich Harrer met a Tibetan 
whose servant stood holding a spitoon in case the master wanted to 
spit. Queen Victoria would take her position and sit, and there had to 
be a chair. George the Sixth used to wear electrically heated under- 
clothes when deerstalking, which meant a gillie had to follow him 
around holding the battery. 

I train actors to use minimum status gaps, because then they have 
to assess the status of their partners accurately, but I also teach them 
to play maximum status-gap scenes. For example, I ask the actors 
to play a scene in which a master is as high in status as possible, and 
the servant as low as possible. At first they'll play ineptly. The master 
looks uncomfortable, and the servant intrudes on the master's space. 

I start the scene again and say that the moment the master feels the 
slightest irritation he's to snap his fingers— the servant will then 
commit suicide. I'll have to prod the master into action because he'll 
be reluctant to exercise his power. The moment the master looks ir- 
ritated I say 'Kill him!' and send in more servants until the stage is 


Uttered with bodies. Everyone laughs a lot, but often the servants 
have no idea why they're being killed. I ask the master to explain the 
reasons, but I stress that he doesn't need to be fair. The servants 
usually think the master is being harsh, but the audience are amazed 
that servants survive so long, since everything they do is inept. 
Servants are killed because they wave their arms about, because they 
clump about, because they're disrespectful, or because they mis- 
understand the master's requirements. 

Now I give the servants three lives, so they die at the third snap of 
the fingers. Amazingly you'll see them doing exactly the same thing 
after a finger snap as before it. 'Do something different,' I shout, 'he's 
about to kill you again.' The servants seem amazingly unadaptable— 
this is because they're demonstrating their role as servants rather than 
attending to the needs of the master. At first they survive for just a 
few seconds, but soon they're surviving for minutes, and the masters 
" cgin to feel amazingly pampered as they're thrust up in status by 
their servants. 

Once a maximum-gap master-servant scene is established, I send in 
a third person who has to placate the master, and cope with the 
servants as well. 

In one form of this game you reverse the expected status. If an 
executioner is trying to play as low as possible, then he'll be too nervous 
to roll the last cigarette, he'll apologise for the untidiness, he'll ask for 
an autograph, or he'll accidentally shoot himself in the foot. The 
suicide on the ledge who plays high status may argue the rescuer into 
jumping off. It's very easy to create scenes this way. 

'Excuse me, Miss . . .' 

'Next cashier please. I'm just going off duty.' 

'Er . . . no, no . . . I'm not a customer.' 

*If you'll just join the queue over there, Sir . . .' 

'I've got a note. Here.' 

'Four shirts, two pants, six socks?' 

'No, no . . . er . . . here, this one.' 

'Hand over the money? This is a stick-up!' 

'Not so loud.' 

'Well, how much did you want?' 
'All of it!' 
'Don't be absurd!' 

'Yeah, well, just a few quid then, to tide us over.' 
'I shall have to refer this to Mr Carbuncle.' 
*5op, then!' 


Maximum-status-gap exercises produce 'absurd' improvisations. 
(I don't like the term 'theatre of the absurd', because the best 'absurd' 
plays present 'equivalents' for reality, and aren't nonsensical, and 
many conventional writers have written 'existential' plays. 'Absurd' 
plays are based on maximum-status-gap transactions.) 

Although this short essay is no more than an intro- 
duction, by now it will be clear to you that status transactions aren't 
only of interest to the improviser. Once you understand that every 
sound and posture implies a status, then you perceive the world 
quite differently, and the change is probably permanent. In my view, 
really accomplished actors, directors, and playwrights are people with 
an intuitive understanding of the status transactions that govern human 
relationships. This ability to perceive the underlying motives of 
casual behaviour can also be taught. 

In conclusion, but as a coda, rather than a summing-up, I'd sug- 
gest that a good play is one which ingeniously displays and reverses 
the status between the characters. Many writers of great talent have 
failed to write successful plays (Blake, Keats, Tennyson, among others) 
because of a failure to understand that drama is not primarily a 
literary art. Shakespeare is a great writer even in translation; a great 
production is great even if you don't speak the language. A great play 
is a virtuoso display of status transactions — Waiting for Godot, for 
example. The 'tramps' play friendship status, but there's a continual 
friction because Vladimir believes himself higher than Estragon, a 
thesis which Estragon will not accept. Pozzo and Lucky play maxi- 
mum-gap master-servant scenes. The 'tramps' play low status to 
Lucky, and Pozzo often plays low status to the tramps— which pro- 
duces thrilling effects. Here's a section where the 'tramps' are asking 
why Lucky holds the bags instead of resting them on the ground. 
pozzo: . . . Let's try and get this clear. Has he got the 
right to? Certainly he has. It follows that he 
doesn't want to. There's reasoning for you. And 
why doesn't he want to? (Pause.) Gentlemen, the 
reason is this. 
vladimir: (To Estragon.) Make a note of this. 

pozzo: He wants to impress me so that I'll keep him. 
estragon: What? 

pozzo : ... In reality, he carries like a pig. It's not his job. 

status 73 
vladimir : You want to get rid of him? 

pozzo: He imagines that when I see him indefatigable I'll 

regret my decision. Such is his miserable scheme. As 
though I were short of slaves ! (All three look at 
Lucky.) Atlas, son of Jupiter! 
If you observe the status, then the play is fascinating. If you ignore 
it the play is tedious. Pozzo is not really a very high-status master, 
since he fights for status all the time. He owns the land, but he doesn't 
own the space. 

pozzo : . . . I must be getting on. Thank you for your 

society. (He reflects.) Unless I smoke another pipe 
before I go. What do you say? (They say nothing.) 
Oh, I'm only a small smoker, a very small smoker, 
I'm not in the habit of smoking two pipes one on 
top of the other, it makes (Hand to heart, sighing) my 
heart go pit-a-pat. (Silence.) But perhaps you don't 
smoke? Yes? No? It's of no importance. (Silence.) 
But how am I to sit down now, without affectation, 
now that I have risen? Without appearing to — how 
shall I say — without appearing to falter. (To 
Vladimir.) I beg your pardon? (Silence.) Perhaps 
you didn't speak? (Silence.) It's of no importance. 
Let me see . . . 
(He reflects.) 
estragon: Ah! That's better. 

(He puts the bones in his pocket.) 
vladimir: Let's go. 
estragon: So soon? 

pozzo : One moment ! (He jerks the rope.) Stool ! (He points 
with his whip. Lucky moves the stool.) More! There! 
(He sits down. Lucky goes back to his place) Done it ! 
(He fills his pipe.) 
It must be clear, I think, that even the stage directions relate to 
status. Every 'silence' is lowering to Pozzo. I remember a reviewer 
(Kenneth Tynan) making fun of Beckett's pauses, but this just shows 
a lack of understanding. Obviously Beckett's plays need careful pacing, 
but the pauses are part of the pattern of dominance and submission. 
Godot earns its reputation as a boring play only when directors try to 
ke it 'significant', and ignore the status transactions. 
I don't myself see that an educated man in this culture necessarily 
to understand the second law of thermodynamics, but he certainly 


should understand that we are pecking-order animals and that this 
affects the tiniest details of our behaviour. 


I. The high-status effect of slow motion means that TV heroes who have 
the power of superhuman speed are shown slowed down ! Logic would 
suggest that you should speed the film up, but then they'd be jerking 
about like the Keystone Cops, or the bionic chicken. 


'I was given the part of poor Armgard, so I stood 
in front of the class and as I began with "Here he cannot escape 
me, he must hear me", I suddenly noticed a warm friendly feeling 
in the region of the stomach, like a soft hotwater bottle in a cold 
bed, and when I got to "Mercy, Lord Governor! Oh, pardon, 
pardon", I was already on my knees, tears streaming from my eyes 
and nose, and sobbing to such an extent that I could only finish the 
passage "My wretched orphans cry for bread" with supreme difficulty. 
The fishhead was in favour of a more restrained performance and her 
cutting voice drove me to the back of the class room with words of 
"Un-German hysterical conduct". It was a nightmare. I almost died 
of shame and prayed for an earthquake or an air raid to deliver me 
from the derision and shock . . . apart from the nagging voice all 
went still, the others stared at me as though they had unwittingly 
boured a serpent in their midst. The rest of my days with Weise 
_e torture. I was afraid of the others and myself for I could never 
certain that I wouldn't again throw myself down in tears because 
of the orphans. . . .' (Hildegarde Knef, The Gift Horse, Andre 
Deutsch, 1 97 1.) 

It's possible to turn unimaginative people into imaginative people 
at a moment's notice. I remember an experiment referred to in the 
: tish Journal of Psychology — probably in the summer of 1969 or 
ir— in which some businessmen who had showed up as very dull 
on work-association tests were asked to imagine themselves as happy- 
go-lucky hippy types, in which persona they were retested, and showed 
up as far more imaginative. In creativity tests you may be asked to 
ggest different ways of using a brick; if you say things like 'Build a 
use', or 'Build a wall', then you're classified as unimaginative — if 
- say 'Grind it up and use it for diarrhoea mixture', or 'Rub off 
warts with it', then you're imaginative. I'm oversimplifying, but you 
get the general idea. 

Some tests involve picture completion. You get given a lot of little 
squares with signs in them, and you have to add something to the 
sign. 'Uncreative' people just add another squiggle, or join up a 'C' 


shape to make a circle. 'Creative' people have a great time, parallel 
lines become the trunk of a tree, a 'V on its side becomes the beam of 
a lighthouse, and so on. It may be a mistake to think of such tests as 
showing people to be creative, or uncreative. It may be that the tests 
are recording different activities. The person who adds a timid 
squiggle may be trying to reveal as little as possible about himself. If 
we can persuade him to have fun, and not worry about being judged, 
then maybe he can approach the test with the same attitude as a 
'creative' person, just like the tired businessmen when they were 
pretending to be hippies. 

Most schools encourage children to be unimaginative. The research 
so far shows that imaginative children are disliked by their teachers. 
Torrance gives an eye-witness account of an 'exceptionally creative 
boy' who questioned one of the rules in the textbook: 'The teacher 
became irate, even in the presence of the principal. She fumed, "So! 
You think you know more than this book!" ' She was also upset when 
the boy finished the problems she set almost as quickly as it took to 
read them. 'She couldn't understand how he was getting the correct 
answer and demanded that he write down all of the steps he had gone 
through in solving each problem.' 

When this boy transferred to another school, his new principal 
telephoned to ask if he was the sort of boy 'who has to be squelched 
rather roughly'. When it was explained that he was 'a very wholesome, 
promising lad who needed understanding and encouragement' the new 
principal exclaimed 'rather brusquely, "Well, he's already said too 
much right here in my office!" * (E. P. Torrance, Guiding Creative 
Talent, Prentice-Hall, 1962.) 

One of my students spent two years in a classroom where the teacher 
had put a large sign over the blackboard. It said 'Get into the "Yes, 
Sir" attitude.' No doubt we can all add further anecdotes. Torrance 
has a theory that 'many children with impoverished imaginations 
have been subjected to rather vigorous and stern efforts to eliminate 
fantasy too early. They are afraid to think.' Torrance seems to under- 
stand the forces at work, but he still refers to attempts to eliminate 
fantasy too early. Why should we eliminate fantasy at all? Once we 
eliminate fantasy, then we have no artists. 

Intelligence is proportional to population, but talent appears not to 
be related to population numbers. I'm living in a city at the edge of 
the Rocky Mountains; the population is much greater than it was in 
Shakespearian London, and almost everyone here is literate, and has 
had many thousands of dollars spent on his education. Where are the 


s, and playwrights, and painters, and composers? Remember that 
are hundreds of thousands of 'literate' people here, while in 
akespeare's London very few people could read. The great art of this 
part of the world was the art of the native peoples. The whites 
nder about trying to be 'original' and failing miserably. 
You can get a glimmer of the damage done when you watch people 
trying out pens in stationers' shops. They make feeble little scribbles 
or fear of giving something away. If an Aborigine asked us for a 
sample of Nordic art we'd have to direct him to an art gallery. No 
Aborigine ever told an anthropologist, 'Sorry, Baas, I can't draw.' 
Two of my students said they couldn't draw, and I asked, 'Why?' One 
id her teacher had been sarcastic because she'd painted a blue 
snowman (every child's painting was pinned up on the walls except 
hers). The other girl had drawn trees up the sides of her paintings 
(like Paul Klee), and the teacher drew a 'correct' tree on top of hers. 
She remembered thinking 'I'll never draw for you again!' (One reason 
»iven for filling in the windows of the local schools here is that it'll 
1 make the children more attentive!) 
Most children can operate in a creative way until they're eleven or 
twelve, when suddenly they lose their spontaneity, and produce 
of 'adult art'. When other races come into contact with 
our culture something similar happens. The great Nigerian sculptor 
Bamboya was set up as principal of an art school by some philan- 
opic Americans in the 1920s. Not only did he fail to hand on his 
talents, but his own inspiration failed him. He and his students could 
still carve coffee tables for the whites, but they weren't inspired any 

So-called 'primitive painters' in our own culture sometimes go to 
art school to improve themselves — and lose their talent. A critic told me 
of a film school where each new student made a short film unaided. 
These, he said, were always interesting, although technically crude. 
At the end of the course they made a longer, technically more pro- 
ficient film, which hardly anyone wanted to see. He seemed outraged 
when I suggested they should close the school (he lectured there) ; yet 
until recently our directors didn't get any training. Someone asked 
ubrick if it was usual for a director to spend so much care on lighting 
1 shot and he said, T don't know. I've never seen anyone else light 

You have to be a very stubborn person to remain an artist in this 
. It's easy to play the role of 'artist', but actually to create some- 
means going against one's education. I read an interview once 


in which Grandma Moses was complaining that people kept urging 
her to improve her snow scenes by putting blue in them, but she 
insisted that the snow she saw was white, so she wouldn't do it. This 
little old lady could paint because she defied the 'experts'. Even after 
his works had been exhibited in court as proof that he wasn't in his 
right mind, Henri Rousseau still had the stubbornness to go on paint- 

We see the artist as a wild and aberrant figure. Maybe our artists 
are the people who have been constitutionally unable to conform to 
the demands of the teachers. Pavlov found that there were some dogs 
that he couldn't 'brainwash' until he'd castrated them, and starved 
them for three weeks. If teachers could do that to us, then maybe 
they'd achieve Plato's dream of a republic in which there are no artists 
left at all. 

Many teachers think of children as immature adults. It might lead 
to better and more 'respectful' teaching, if we thought of adults as 
atrophied children. Many 'well adjusted' adults are bitter, uncreative 
frightened, unimaginative, and rather hostile people. Instead of 
assuming they were born that way, or that that's what being an adult 
entails, we might consider them as people damaged by their education 
and upbringing. 


Many teachers express surprise at the switch-off that 
occurs at puberty, but I don't, because first of all the child has to hide 
the sexual turmoil he's in, and secondly the grown-ups' attitude to 
him completely changes. 

Suppose an eight-year-old writes a story about being chased down 
a mouse-hole by a monstrous spider. It'll be perceived as 'childish' and 
no one will worry. If he writes the same story when he's fourteen it 
may be taken as a sign of mental abnormality. Creating a story, or 
painting a picture, or making up a poem lay an adolescent wide open 
to criticism. He therefore has to fake everything so that he appears 
'sensitive' or 'witty' or 'tough' or 'intelligent' according to the image 
he's trying to establish in the eyes of other people. If he believed he 
was a transmitter, rather than a creator, then we'd be able to see what 
his talents really were. 

We have an idea that art is self-expression— which historically is 
weird. An artist used to be seen as a medium through which something 
else operated. He was a servant of the God. Maybe a mask-maker 


would have fasted and prayed for a week before he had a vision of the 
Mask he was to carve, because no one wanted to see his Mask, they 
wanted to see the God's. When Eskimos believed that each piece of 
bone only had one shape inside it, then the artist didn't have to 'think 
up' an idea. He had to wait until he knew what was in there — and this 
is crucial. When he'd finished carving his friends couldn't say 'I'm a 
bit worried about that Nanook at the third igloo', but only, 'He made 
a mess getting that out !' or 'There are some very odd bits of bone 
about these days.' These days of course the Eskimos get booklets 
giving illustrations of what will sell, but before we infected them, they 
were in contact with a source of inspiration that we are not. It's no 
wonder that our artists are aberrant characters. It's not surprising that 
great African sculptors end up carving coffee tables, or that the talent 
of our children dies the moment we expect them to become adult. 
Once we believe that art is self-expression, then the individual can be 
criticised not only for his skill or lack of skill, but simply for being what 
he is. 

Schiller wrote of a 'watcher at the gates of the mind', who examines 
ideas too closely. He said that in the case of the creative mind 'the 
intellect has withdrawn its watcher from the gates, and the ideas rush 
in pell-mell, and only then does it review and inspect the multitude.' 
He said that uncreative people 'are ashamed of the momentary passing 
madness which is found in all real creators . . . regarded in isolation, 
an idea may be quite insignificant, and venturesome in the extreme, 
but it may acquire importance from an idea that follows it; perhaps in 
collation with other ideas which seem equally absurd, it may be cap- 
able of furnishing a very serviceable link.' 

My teachers had the opposite theory. They wanted me to reject and 
discriminate, believing that the best artist was the one who made the 
most elegant choices. They analysed poems to show how difficult 
'real' writing was, and they taught that I should always know where 
the writing was taking me, and that I should search for better and 
better ideas. They spoke as if an image like 'the multitudinous seas 
incarnadine' could have been worked out like the clue to a crossword 
puzzle. Their idea of the 'correct' choice was the one anyone would 
have made if he had thought long enough, 
j I now feel that imagining should be as effortless as perceiving. In 
order to recognise someone my brain has to perform amazing feats of 
analysis : 'Shape . . . dark . . . swelling . . . getting closer . . . human . . . 
nose type X15, eyes type E24B . . . characteristic way of walking . . . 
look under relative . . .' and so on, in order to turn electromagnetic 


radiation into the image of my father, yet I don't experience myself as 
'doing' anything at all ! My brain creates a whole universe without my 
having the least sense of effort. Of course, if I say 'Hi Dad', and the 
approaching figure ignores me, then I'd do something that I perceive 
as 'thinking'. 'That's not the coat he usually wears,' I think, 'This 
man is shorter.' It's only when I believe my perceptions to be in 
error that I have to 'do' anything. It's the same with imagination. 
Imagination is as effortless as perception, unless we think it might be 
'wrong', which is what our education encourages us to believe. Then 
we experience ourselves as 'imagining', as 'thinking up an idea', but 
what we're really doing is faking up the sort of imagination we think 
we ought to have. 

When I read a novel I have no sense of effort. Yet if I pay close 
attenrion to my mental processes I find an amazing amount of activity. 
'She walked into the room . . .' I read, and I have a picture in my 
mind, very detailed, of a large Victorian room empty of furniture, 
with the bare boards painted white around what used to be the edge 
of the carpet. I also see some windows with the shutters open and 
sunlight streaming through them. 'She noticed some charred papers 
in the grate . . .' I read, and my mind inserts a fireplace which I've 
seen in a friend's house, very ornate. 'A board creaked behind her . . .' 
I read, and for a split second I see a Frankenstein's monster holding a 
wet teddy bear. 'She turned to see a little wizened old man . . .', 
instantly, the monster shrivels to Picasso with a beret, and the room 
darkens and fills with furniture. My imagination is working as hard 
as the writer's, but I have no sense of doing anything, or 'being 

A friend has just read the last paragraph and found it impossible 
to imagine that she's being creative when she reads. I tell her I'll 
invent a story especially for her. 'Imagine a man walking along 
the street,' I say. 'Suddenly he hears a sound and turns to see some- 
thing moving in a doorway . . .' I stop and ask her what the man is 

'A suit.' 

'What sort of suit?' 

'Any other people in the street?' 

'A white dog.' 

'What was the street like?' 

'It was a London street. Working-class. Some of the buildings have 
been demolished.' 


'Any windows boarded up?' 
'Yes. Rusty corrugated iron.' 
'So they've been boarded up a long time?' 
She's obviously created much more than I have. She doesn't pause to 
think up the answers to my questions, she 'knows' them. They flashed 
automatically into her consciousness. 

People may seem uncreative, but they'll be extremely ingenious at 
rationalising the things they do. You can see this in people who obey 
post-hypnotic suggestions, while managing to explain the behaviour 
ordered by the hypnotist as being of their own volition. 

People maintain prejudices quite effortlessly. For example, in this 
conversation (R. B. Zajonc, Public Opinion Quarterly, Princeton, i960, 
Vol. 24, 2, pp. 280-96): 

mr x; The trouble with Jews is that they only take care of 

their own group. 
MR Y : But the record of the community chest shows that 

they give more generously than non-Jews. 
MR X : That shows that they are always trying to buy 

favour and intrude in Christian affairs. They think 
of nothing but money ; that's why there are so many 
Jewish bankers. 
mr y: But a recent study shows that the per cent of Jews 
in banking is proportionally much smaller than the 
per cent of non-Jews. 
mr x: That's it. They don't go for respectable businesses. 
They would rather run nightclubs, 
a way this bigot is being very creative. 

knew a man who was discovered stark naked in a wardrobe by an 
husband. The wife screamed, 'I've never seen this man before in 
- life.' T must be in the wrong flat,' said my friend. These reactions 
't very satisfactory, but they didn't have to be 'thought up', they 
; to mind quite automatically. 
I sometimes shock students who have been trained by strict 'method' 

'Be sad,' I say. 
'What do you mean, be sad?' 
'Just be sad. See whar happens.' 
'But what's my motivation?' 
'Just be sad. Start to weep and you'll 
The student decides to humour me. 
'That isn't very sad. You're just pretending.' 


'You asked me to pretend.' 

'Raise your arm. Now, why are you raising it?' 

'You asked me to.' 

'Yes, but why might you have raised it?' 
'To hold on to a strap in the Tube.' 
'Then that's why you raised your arm.' 
'But 1 could have given any reason.' 

'Of course; you could have been waving to someone, or milking a 
giraffe, or airing your armpit . . .' 

'But I don't have time to choose the best reason.' 

'Don't choose anything. Trust your mind. Take the first idea it 
gives you. Now try being sad again. Hold the face in a sad position, 
fight back the tears. Be unhappier. More. More. Now tell me why 
you're in this state?' 

'My child has died.' 

'Did you think that up?' 

'I just knew.' 

'There you are, then.' 

'My teacher said you shouldn't act adjectives.' 

'You shouldn't act adjectives without justifying them.' 

If an improviser is stuck for an idea, he shouldn't search for one, 
he should trigger his partner's ability to give 'unthought' answers. 

If someone starts a scene by saying 'What are you doing here?' then 
his partner can instantly say, without thinking, 'I just came down to 
get the milk, Sir.' 

'Didn't I tell you what I'd do if I caught you again?' 

'Oh Sir, don't put me in the refrigerator, Sir.' 

If you don't know what to do in a scene, just say something like, 
'Oh my God! What's that?' 

This immediately jerks images into your partner's mind: 'Mother!' 
he says, or 'That dog's messed the floor again', or 'A secret staircase!' 
or whatever. 


At school any spontaneous act was likely to get me into 
trouble. I learned never to act on impulse, and that whatever came 
into my mind first should be rejected in favour of better ideas. I 
learned that my imagination wasn't 'good' enough. I learned that the 
first idea was unsatisfactory because it was (i) psychotic; (2) obscene; 
(3) unoriginal. 


The truth is that the best ideas are often psychotic, obscene and 
unoriginal. My best known play — a one-acter called Moby Dick — is 
about a servant who keeps his master's one remaining sperm in a 
goldfish bowl. It escapes, grows to monstrous size, and has to be 
hunted down on the high seas. This is certainly a rather obscene idea 
to many people, and if I hadn't thrown away everything that my 
teachers taught me, I could never have written it. These teachers, 
who were so sure of the rules, didn't produce anything themselves at 
all. I was one of a number of playwrights who emerged in the late 
1950s, and it was remarkable that only one of us had been to a uni- 
versity — that was John Arden — and he'd studied architecture. 

Let's take a look at these three categories. 

Psychotic Thought 

My feeling is that sanity is actually a pretence, a way 
we learn to behave. We keep this pretence up because we don't want 
to be rejected by other people — and being classified insane is to be shut 
out of the group in a very complete way. 

Most people I meet are secretly convinced that they're a little 
crazier than the average person. People understand the energy 
necessary to maintain their own shields, but not the energy expended 
by other people. They understand that their own sanity is a perform- 
ance, but when confronted by other people they confuse the person 
with the role. 

Sanity has nothing directly to do with the way you think. It's a 
of presenting yourself as safe. Little old men wander around 
iB hallucinating visibly, but no one gets upset. The same 
viour in a younger, more vigorous person would get him shut 
y. A Canadian study on attitudes to mental illness concluded that 
it was when someone's behaviour was perceived as 'unpredictable' 
that the community rejected them. A fat lady was admiring a painting 
at a private view at the Tate when the artist strode over and bit her. 
They threw him out, but no one questioned his sanity— it was how he 
always behaved. 

I once read about a man who believed himself to have a fish in his 
jaw. (The case was reported in New Society.) This fish moved about, 
and caused him a lot of discomfort. When he tried to tell people about 
the fish, they thought him 'crazy', which led to violent arguments. 
After he'd been hospitalised several times — with no effect on the fish — 
it was suggested that perhaps he shouldn't tell anyone. After all it was 
the quarrels that were getting him put away, rather than the delusion. 


Once he'd agreed to keep his problem secret, he was able to lead a 
normal life. His sanity is like our sanity. We may not have a fish in our 
jaw, but we all have its equivalent. 

When I explain that sanity is a matter of interaction, rather than of 
one's mental processes, students are often hysterical with laughter. 
They agree that for years they have been suppressing all sorts of think- 
ing because they classified it as insane. 

Students need a 'guru' who 'gives permission' to allow forbidden 
thoughts into their consciousness. A 'guru' doesn't necessarily teach 
at all. Some remain speechless for years, others communicate very 
cryptically. All reassure by example. They are people who have been 
into the forbidden areas and who have survived unscathed. I react 
playfully with my students, while showing them that there are just as 
many dead nuns or chocolate scorpions inside my head as there are in 
anybody's, yet I interact very smoothly and sanely. It's no good telling 
the student that he isn't to be held responsible for the content of his 
imagination, he needs a teacher who is living proof that the monsters 
are not real, and that the imagination will not destroy you. Otherwise 
the student will have to go on pretending to be dull. 

At one time I went from a class of mental patients in the morning 
to a class of drama students in the afternoon. The work of the drama 
students was far more bizarre, because they weren't so scared of what 
their minds might do. The mental patients mistook even the normal 
working of the imagination as proof of their insanity. 

I remember the psychologist David Stafford-Clark criticising Ken 
Campbell at a public meeting. Ken had said that he encouraged his 
actors to act like lunatics, because then people would find them amus- 
ing. Stafford-Clark was upset at the idea that mad people should be 
thought 'funny', but that's hardly Ken's fault. Laughter is a whip that 
keeps us in line. It's horrible to be laughed at against your will. Either 
you suppress unwelcome laughter or you start controlling it. We sup- 
press our spontaneous impulses, we censor our imaginations, we learn 
to present ourselves as 'ordinary', and we destroy our talent— then no 
one laughs at us. If Shakespeare had been worried about establishing 
his sanity, he could never have written Hamlet, let alone Titus 
Andronicus; Harpo couldn't have inflated a rubber glove and milked it 
into the coffee cups; 1 Groucho would never have threatened to horse- 
whip someone — if he had a horse; W. C. Fields would never have 
leapt out of the aeroplane after his whisky bottle; Stan Laurel would 
never have snapped his fingers and ignited his thumb. 

We all know instinctively what 'mad' thought is: mad thoughts are 


those which other people find unacceptable, and train us not to talk 
about, but which we go to the theatre to see expressed. 


I find many things obscene, in the sense of repulsive or 
shocking. I find the use of film from real massacres in the tides of TV 
shows pretty nasty. I find the way people take pills and smoke cigar- 
ettes, and generally screw themselves up, rather awful. The way parents 
and teachers often treat children nauseates me. Most people think of 
obscene things as sexual like pubic hair, obscene language, but I'm 
more shocked by modern cities, by the carcinogens in the air and in 
the food, by the ever-increasing volume of radioactive materials in the 
environment. In the first seven months of 1975 the cancer rate in 
America seems to have jumped by 5.2 per cent, but few noticed— the 
information didn't have 'news value'. 

Most people's idea of what is or isn't obscene varies. In some 
cultures certain times are set aside when the normal values are 
reversed — the 'Lord of Misrule', Zuni clowning, many carnivals — 
! something similar happens even in this culture, or so I'm told, at 
office parties for example. People's tolerance of obscenity varies ac- 
cording to the group they're with, or the particular circumstances 
; devant les enf ants'). People can laugh at jokes told at a party that 
they wouldn't find funny on a more formal occasion. It seems un- 
fortunate to me that the classroom is often considered a 'formal' area 
in this sense. 

The first school I taught at had one woman teacher. When she went 
t shopping at lunchtime, the men pulled their chairs round and told 
■ stories non-stop. Down in the playground, as usual, the children 
: swopping similar stories, or writing 'shit' or 'fuck' on the walls, 
always correctly spelt; yet the staff considered the children 'dirty 
little devils', and punished them for saying things which were far 
*der than things the teachers themselves would say, and enjoy 
hing at. When these children grow up, and perhaps crack up, then 
"'11 find themselves in therapy groups where they'll be encouraged 
say all the things that the teacher would have forbidden during 

;ulkes and Anthony (in Group Psychotherapy, Penguin, 1972) say 
a therapeutic situation is one 'in which the patient can freely voice 
innermost thoughts towards himself, towards any other person, and 
rds the analyst. He can be confident that he is not being judged, 
that he is fully accepted, whatever he may be, or whatever he may 


disclose.' Later they add: 'We encourage the relaxation of censorship. 
We do this by letting the patient members understand that they are 
not only permitted, but expected to say anything that comes to mind. 
We tell them not to allow any of their usual inhibitory considerations to 
stand in the way of voicing the ideas that come to them spontaneously.' 

I was at school more than twenty years ago, but in education the 
more things change the more they are the same. (Recent research 
suggests that the old 'monitor' system may be one of the most efficient 
teaching methods!) Here are some answers that headmasters gave to a 
questionnaire about sex education in their schools. (Reported in the 
New Statesman, 28 February 1969.) 

'I'm against all "frank discussion" of these matters.' 

'Those who are determined to behave like animals can doubtless 
find out the facts for themselves.' 

'I am sick, sick of the talk about sex. I'll have none of it in mv 
school.' ' 

'Everything that needs to be done in my school is done individually, 
and in private by a missionary priest.' 

Notice the use of 'my school' rather than 'our school'. Recently a 
young girl burned to death because she was ashamed to run naked 
from a burning house. To some extent her teachers are to blame. 
Here's Sheila Kitzinger on some effects of middle-class prudery. 

'In Jamaica I discovered that the West Indian peasant woman rarely 
feels discomfort in the perineum, or minds the pressure of the baby's 
head as it descends. But from the case studies of English middle-class 
women it appears that many of them worry about dirtying the bed 
and are often shocked by sensations against the rectum and the vagina 
in labour— sensations which they may find excruciating. They feel 
distressed, in fact, at just those sensations which the peasant woman 
meets with equanimity. 

'Some women find relaxation of the abdominal wall difficult, and 
especially so when they experience any pain. They have been taught 
to "hold their tummies in", and sometimes it goes against the grain to 
release these muscles.' (Sheila Kitzinger, The Experience 0/ Childbirth, 
Gollancz, 1962.) She adds that women with prolonged labours tended to 
be 'inhibited, embarrassed by the processes taking place in their bodies, 
ladylike in the extreme, and endured what they were undergoing 
stoically as long as they were able, without expressing their anxieties. 
It was not these women's bodies that were causing them difficulties; 
they were being held up by the sort of people they were. They were 
not able to give birth.' 


When I have been teaching in universities, I haven't experienced 
any problem with censorship — at least not on 'sexual' grounds — and 
I'm not saying that fear of obscenity is the most important factor in 
making people reject the first ideas that come to them, but it does help 
though, if improvisation teachers are not puritanical, and can allow 
the students to behave as they want to behave. The best situation is 
one in which the class is seen as a party, rather than a formal teacher- 
pupil set-up. If it isn't possible to let students speak and act with the 
same freedom they have outside the school, then it might be better not 
to teach them drama at all. The most repressed, and damaged, and 
'unteachable' students that I have to deal with are those who were the 
star performers at bad high schools. Instead of learning how to be warm 
and spontaneous and giving, they've become armoured and superficial, 
calculating and self-obsessed. I could show you many many examples 
where education has clearly been a destructive process. 

My feeling isn't that the group should be 'obscene', but that they 
should be aware of the ideas that are occurring to them. I don't want 
them to go rigid and blank out, but to laugh, and say 'I'm not saying 
that' or whatever. 


Many students block their imaginations because 
they're afraid of being unoriginal. They believe they know exactly 
hat originality is, just as critics are always sure they can recognise 
things that are avant-garde. 

We have a concept of originality based on things that already exist. 
I'm told that avant-garde theatre groups in Japan are just like those in 
the West — well of course, or how would we know what they were? 
Anyone can run an avant-garde theatre group ; you just get the actors 
to lie naked in heaps or outstare the audience, or move in extreme 
slow motion, or whatever the fashion is. But the real avant-garde 
aren't imitating what other people are doing, or what they did forty 
years ago; they're solving the problems that need solving, like how to 
get a popular theatre with some worth-while content, and they may 
not look avant-garde at all ! 

The improviser has to realise that the more obvious he is, the more 
original he appears. I constantly point out how much the audience 
like someone who is direct, and how they always laugh with pleasure 
at a really 'obvious' idea. Ordinary people asked to improvise will 
search for some 'original' idea because they want to be thought clever. 
They'll say and do all sorts of inappropriate things. If someone says 


'What's for supper?' a bad improviser will desperately try to think up 
something original. Whatever he says he'll be too slow. He'll finally 
drag up some idea like 'fried mermaid'. If he'd just said 'fish' the 
audience would have been delighted. No two people are exactly alike, 
and the more obvious an improviser is, the more himself he appears. 
If he wants to impress us with his originality, then he'll search out 
ideas that are actually commoner and less interesting. I gave up asking 
London audiences to suggest where scenes should take place. Some 
idiot would always shout out either 'Leicester Square public lavatories' 
or 'outside Buckingham Palace' (never 'inside Buckingham Palace'). 
People trying to be original always arrive at the same boring old 
answers. Ask people to give you an original idea and see the chaos 
it throws them into. If they said the first thing that came into their 
head, there'd be no problem. 

An artist who is inspired is being obvious. He's not making any 
decisions, he's not weighing one idea against another. He's accepting 
his first thoughts. How else could Dostoyevsky have dictated one 
novel in the morning and one in the afternoon for three weeks in 
order to fulfil his contracts? If you consider the volume of work pro- 
duced by Bach then you get some idea of his fluency (and we've lost 
half of it), yet a lot of his time was spent rehearsing, and teaching 
Latin to the choirboys. According to Louis Schlosser, Beethoven 
said: 'You ask me where I get my ideas? That I can't say with any 
certainty. They come unbidden, direcdy, I could grasp them with 
my hands.' Mozart said of his ideas: 'Whence and how they come, I 
know not; nor can I force them. Those that please me I retain in the 
memory, and I am accustomed, as I have been told, to hum them.' 
Later in the same letter he says : 'Why my productions take from my 
hand that particular form and style that makes them Mozartish, and 
different from the works of other composers, is probably owing to the 
same cause which renders my nose so large or so aquiline, or in short, 
makes it Mozart's, and different from those of other people. For I 
really do not study or aim at any originality.' 

Suppose Mozart had tried to be original? It would have been like 
a man at the North Pole trying to walk north, and this is true of all the 
rest of us. Striving after originality takes you far away from your 
true self, and makes your work mediocre. 


Let's see how these theories work out in practice. 
Suppose I say to a student, 'Imagine a box. What's in it?' Answers 
will flash into his mind uninvited. Perhaps : 
'Uncle Ted, dead.' 

If he said this then people would laugh, and he'd seem good- 
natured and witty, but he doesn't want to be thought 'insane', or 
callous. 'Hundreds of toilet rolls', says his imagination, but he doesn't 
want to appear preoccupied with excretion. 'A big, fat, coiled snake'? 
No — too Freudian. Finally after a pause of perhaps two whole 
seconds he says 'Old clothes' or 'It's empty', and feels unimaginative 
and defeated. 

I say to a student, 'Name some objects.' 

He tenses up. 'Er . . . pebble . . . er . . . beach . . . cliff . . . er . . . 
er . . .' 

'Have you any idea why you've blocked?' I ask. 
'I keep thinking of "pebble".' 

'Then say it. Say whatever occurs to you. It doesn't have to be 
original.' Actually it would be very original to keep saying the same 
word : 'Pebble. Another pebble. A big pebble. A pebble with a hole in 
it. A pebble with a white mark. The pebble with a hole in it again.' 
'Say a word', I say to someone else. 
'Er . . . er . . . cabbage,' he says looking alarmed. 
'That's not the word you first thought of.' 

'I saw your lips move. They formed an "O" shape.' 

'What's wrong with the word orange?' 
'Cabbage seemed more ordinary.' 

This student wants to appear wmmaginative. What sort of crippling 

aces must he have gone through before he came to me? 
'What's the opposite of "starfish"? ' 

'Answer, say it,' I shout, because I can see that he did think of 

'Sunflower,' he says, amazed because he didn't know that was the 
'dea that was about to come out of him. 
A student mimes taking something off a shelf. 
'What is it?' I ask. 
'A book.' 


'I saw your hand reject an earlier shape. What did you want to take?' 

'A tin of sardines.' 

'Why didn't you?' 

'I don't know.' 

'Was it open?' 


'All messy?' 

'Maybe you were opting for a pleasanter object. Mime taking 
something else off a shelf.' 
His mind goes blank. 
'I can't seem to think of anything.' 
'Do you know why?' 
'I keep thinking of the sardines.' 
'Why don't you take down another tin of sardines?' 
'I wanted to be original.' 

I ask a girl to say a word. She hesitates and says 'Pig.' 

'What was the first word you thought of?' 


'Tell me a colour.' 
Again she hesitates. 

'What colour did you think of first?' 

'Invent a name for a stone.' 

'What was the name you first thought of?' 

Normally the mind doesn't know that it's rejecting the first answers 
because they don't go into the long-term memory. If I didn't ask her 
immediately, she'd deny that she was substituting better words. 

'Why don't you tell me the first answers that occur to you?' 

'They weren't significant.' 

I suggest to her that she didn't say 'Pea' because it suggested 
urination, that maybe she rejects pink because it reminds her of flesh. 
She agrees, and then says that she rejected 'Pebble' because she didn't 
want to say three words beginning with W. This girl isn't really slow, 
she doesn't need to hesitate. Teaching her to accept the first idea will 
make her seem far more inventive. 

The first time I meet a group I might ask them to mime taking a hat 
off, or to mime taking something off a shelf, or out of their pocket. I 



won't watch them while they do it; I'll probably look out of the 
window. Afterwards I explain that I'm not interested in what they 
did, but in how their minds worked. I say that either they can put 
their hand out, and see what it closes on; or else they can think first, 
decide what they'll pick up, and then do the mime. If they're worried 
about failing, then they'll have to think first; if they're being playful, 
then they can allow their hand to make its own decision. 

Suppose I decide to pick up something. I can put my hand down 
and pick up something dangly. It's an old, used rubber contraceptive, 
which isn't something I would have chosen to pick up, but it is what 
my hand 'decided' to close on. My hand is very likely to pick up 
something I don't want, like a steaming horse-turd, but the audience 
will be delighted. They don't want me to think up something re- 
spectable to mime, like a bucket or a suitcase. I ask the class to try 
doing the mime both with and without 'thinking' so that they can 
sense the difference. If I make people produce object after object, then 
very likely they'll stop bothering to think first, and just swing along 
being mildly interested in what their hands select. Here's a sequence 
that was filmed, so I remember it pretty well. I said: 

'Put your hand into an imaginary box. What do you take out?' 

'A cricket ball.' 

'Take something else out.' 

'Another cricket ball.' 

'Unscrew it. What's inside?' 

'A medallion.' 

'What's written on it?' 

' "Christmas 1948." ' 

'Put both hands in. What have you got?' 

'A box.' 

'What's written on it?' 

' "Export only." * 

'Open it and take something out.' 

'A pair of rubber corsets.' 

'Put your hands in the far corners of the box. What have you got?' 
'Two lobsters.' 

'Leave them. Take out a handful of something.' 

'Feel about in it.' 
♦A pearl.' 

'Taste it. What's it taste of?' 
'Pear drops.' 

'Take something off a shelf.' 
'A shoe.' 
'What size?' 

'Reach for something behind you.' 
He laughs. 
'What is it?' 
'A breast 

Notice that I'm helping him to fantasise by continually changing 
the 'set' (i.e. the category) of the questions. 


There are people who prefer to say 'Yes', and there are 
people who prefer to say 'No'. Those who say 'Yes' are rewarded by 
the adventures they have, and those who say 'No' are rewarded by the 
safety they attain. There are far more 'No' sayers around than 'Yes' 
savers, but you can train one type to behave like the other. 3 

'Your name Smith?' 


'Oh . . . are you Brown, then?' 

'Well, have you seen either of them?' 
'I'm afraid not.' 

Whatever the questioner had in mind has now been demolished and 
he feels fed up. The actors are in total conflict. 

Had the ; 
pletely different. 

'Your name Smith?' 


'You're the one who's been mucking about with my wife then?' 
'Very probably.' 
'Take that, you swine.' 

Fred Karno understood this. When he interviewed aspiring actors 
he'd poke his pen into an empty inkwell and pretend to flick ink at 
them. If they mimed being hit in the eye, or whatever, he'd engage 
them. If they looked baffled, and 'blocked' him, then he wouldn't. 

There is a link with status transactions here, since low-status 
players tend to accept, and high-status players to block. High-status 
players will block any action unless they feel they can control it. The 


high-status player is obviously afraid of being humiliated in front of 
an audience, but to block your partner's ideas is to be like the drown- 
ing man who drags down his rescuer. There's no reason why you can't 
play high status, and yet yield to other people's invention. 

'Is your name Smith?' 

'And what if it is?' 

'You've been making indecent suggestions to my wife.' 
'I don't consider them indecent!' 

Many teachers get improvisers to work in conflict because conflict 
is interesting but we don't actually need to teach competitive be- 
haviour; the students will already be expert at it, and it's important 
that we don't exploit the actors' conflicts. Even in what seems to be a 
tremendous argument, the actors should still be co-operating, and 
coolly developing the action. The improviser has to understand that 
his first skill lies in releasing his partner's imagination. What happens 
in my classes, if the actors stay with me long enough, is that they learn 
how their 'normal' procedures destroy other people's talent. Then, 
one day they have a flash of satori— they suddenly understand that 
all the weapons they were using against other people they also use 
inwardly, against themselves. 

'Working' Someone 

Bill Gaskill used to make one actor responsible for the 
content and development of the scene, while his partner just 'assisted'. 
'Have you got it?' 
'Here it is, Sir.' 
'Well, unwrap it.' 
'Here you are, Sir.' 
'Well, help me put it on.' 
'There, Sir. I think it's a good fit.' 
'And the helmet.' 
'How's that, Sir?' 

'Excellent. Now close the faceplate and start pumping. I shall give 
give three tugs on the rope when I find the wreck. Can't be more than 
twenty fathoms.' 

If you concentrate on the task of involving your assistant in some 
action, then a scene evolves automatically. In my view the game is 
most elegant when the audience have no idea that one actor is working 
the other. 

'Good morning.' 

'Good morning.' 


•Yes . . . shall I sit here?' 
'Oh, yes, Sir.' 

The first actor sits at a slant in the chair and opens his mouth. The 
second actor 'catches on' and mimes pumping the chair higher, like 
a dentist. 

'Having some trouble, Sir?' 

'Yes. It's one of these molars.' 

'Hmm. Let's see now. Upper two occlusal . . .' 

'Aaaauuuggghh !' 

'My goodness, that is sensitive.' 

The trick is not to think of getting the assistant to do things, but of 
ways of getting each other into trouble. 
'The regular dentist is on holiday, is he?' 
'Yes, Sir.' 

'I must say, you seem rather young.' 
'Just out of dental school, Sir.* 
'Will you have to extract it? I mean, is it urgent?' 
'I'll say it's urgent, Sir. Another day or so and that would have 

The audience will be convinced that it's the dentist who is con- 
trolling the scene. When improvisers are anxious, each person tries 
to 'carry' the whole scene by himself. Putting the responsibility ail on 
to one person helps them work more calmly.'* 

Blocking and Accepting 

Blocking is a form of aggression. I say this because if 
I set up a scene in which two students are to say 'I love you' to each 
other, they almost always accept each other's ideas. Many students 
do their first interesting, unforced improvisations during 'I love you' 

If I say 'start something' to two inexperienced improvisers, they'll 
probably talk, because speech feels safer than action. And they'll 
block any possibility of action developing. 

'Hallo, how are you.' 

'Oh, same as usual. Nice day, isn't it.' 

'Oh I don't think so.' 

If one actor yawns his partner will probably say 'I do feel fit today.' 
Each actor tends to resist the invention of the other actor, playing for 
time, until he can think up a 'good' idea, and then he'll try to make 
his partner follow it. The motto of scared improvisers is 'when in 
doubt, say "NO".' We use this in life as a way of blocking action. 


Then we go to the theatre, and at all points where we would say 'No' in 
life, we want to see the actors yield, and say 'Yes'. Then the action we 
would suppress if it happened in life begins to develop on the stage. 

If you'll stop reading for a moment and think of something you 
wouldn't want to happen to you, or to someone you love, then you'll 
have thought of something worth staging or filming. We don't want to 
walk into a restaurant and be hit in the face by a custard pie* and we 
don't want to suddenly glimpse Grannie's wheelchair racing towards 
the edge of the cliff, but we'll pay money to attend enactments of such 
events. In life, most of us are highly skilled at suppressing action. All 
the improvisation teacher has to do is to reverse this skill and he creates 
very 'gifted' improvisers. Bad improvisers block action, often with a 
high degree of skill. Good improvisers develop action: 

'Sit down, Smith.' * to *e 

'Thank you, Sir.' 

'It's about the wife, Smith.' 

'She told you about it has she, Sir?' 

'Yes, yes, she's made a clean breast of it.' 

Neither actor is quite sure what the scene is about but he's willing 
to play along, and see what emerges. 

At first students don't realise when they're blocking or yielding, 
and they're not very good at recognising when it's happening with 
other students. Some students prefer to yield (these are 'charming' 
people) but most prefer to block, even though they may have no idea 
exactly what they are doing. I often stop an improvisation to explain 
how the blocking is preventing the action from developing. Videotape 
is a great help : you replay the transaction, and it's obvious to everyone. 
A: Augh! 

B: What's the matter? 

A: I've got my trousers on back to front. 

B: I'll take them off. 

A: No! 

The scene immediately fizzles out. A blocked because he didn't want 
to get involved in miming having his trousers taken off, and having to 
pretend embarrassment, so he preferred to disappoint the audience. 
I ask them to start a similar scene, and to avoid blocking if possible. 
A: Augh! 

B: {Holding him) Steady! 
A: My back hurts. 

B: No, it doesn't . . . Yes, you're right. 
B has noticed his error in blocking, which resulted from his wishing to 


stick to the trouser idea. A then blocks his own idea by shifting to 

A: I'm having trouble with my leg. 
B: I'm afraid I'll have to amputate. 
A: You can't do that, Doctor. 
B: Why not? 

A: Because I'm rather attached to it. 

B: {Losing heart) Come, man. 

A: I've got this growth on my arm too, Doctor. 
During this scene B gets increasingly fed up. Both actors experience 
the other as rather difficult to work with. They can say 'The scene isn't 
working', but they still don't consciously realise why. I've written 
down the dialogue while they were playing the scene, and I go 
through it, and explain exactly how they were interacting, and why B 
was looking more and more depressed. 
I get them to start the scene again, and this time they've understood. 

A: Augh! 

B: Whatever is it, man? 
A: It's my leg, Doctor. 
B : This looks nasty. I shall have to amputate. 
A: It's the one you amputated last time, Doctor. 
(This is not a block because he's accepted the amputation.) 

B: You mean you've got a pain in your wooden leg? 

A: Yes, Doctor. 

B: You know what this means? 

A: Not woodworm, Doctor! 

B: Yes. We'll have to remove it before it spreads to the 
rest of you. 
(A's chair collapses.) 
B: My God! It's spreading to the furniture! (And so on.) 
The interest to the audience lies in their admiration and delight in 
the actors' attitude to each other. We so seldom see people working 
together with such joy and precision. 
Here's another scene I noted down. 
A: Is your name Smith? 
B: Yes. 

A : I've brought the . . . car. 
I interrupt and ask him why he hesitated. A says he doesn't know, 
so I ask him what he was going to say. He says 'Elephant'. 

'You didn't want to say "elephant" because there was one men- 
tioned in the last scene.' 


'That's right.' 
'Stop trying to be original.' 
I make them restart the scene. 

A: I've brought the elephant. 
B : For the gelding? 
A: (Loudly) Nol 

The audience groan and cry out with disappointment. They were 
enthralled with the possibilities latent in a scene about gelding an 
elephant, the elephant suddenly fizzing down to nothing at the first 
, or cutting the trunk off by mistake, or a severed penis chasing the 
about the room. But of course this is why A felt impelled to 
He didn't want to be involved in anything so obscene or 
He resisted the very thing that the audience longed to 

I call anything that an actor does an 'offer'. Each offer can either be 
accepted, or blocked. If you yawn, your partner can yawn too, and 
therefore accept your offer. 

A block is anything that prevents the action from developing, or 
that wipes out your partner's premise. 5 If it develops the action it 
isn't a block. For example: 

'Your name Smith?' 

'What if it is, you horrible little man!' 

This is not a block, even though the answer is antagonistic. Again: 
'I've had enough of your incompetence, Perkins ! Please leave.' 
'No, Sir!' 

This isn't a block either. The second speaker has accepted that he's 
a servant, and he accepts the situation, one of annoyance between 
himself and his employer. 

If a scene were to start with someone saying 'Unhand me, Sir 
Jasper, let me go', and her partner said 'All right, do what you like, 
then', this is probably a block. It would get a laugh but it would create 
bad feeling. 

Once you have established the categories of 'offer', 'block' and 
ept' you can give some very interesting instructions. For example, 
can ask an actor to make dull offers, or interesting offers, or to 
at', or to 'accept and block' and so on. 
You can programme two actors so that A offers and accepts, and 
B offers and blocks. 

A: Hallo, are you a new member? 
B: No, I've come to fix the pipes. You got a leak 


A: Yes, oh, thank goodness. There's three feet of water 

in the basement. 
B: Basement? You ain't got a basement. 
A: No, well, er, the boiler-room. It's just down a few 

steps. You've not brought your tools. 
B: Yes I have. I'm miming them. 
A: Oh, silly of me. I'll leave you to it then. 
B : Oh no. I need an assistant. Hand mc that pipe 
wrench. (And so on.) 
Sometimes both actors can block as well as offer. Bad improvisers 
do this all the time, of course, but when you tell people to block each 
other their morale doesn't collapse so easily. This again suggests to 
me that blocking is aggressive. If the order comes from me, the 
actors don't take it personally. 

A: Are you nervous? 

B : Not at all. I can see that you are. 

A: Nonsense. I'm just warming my fingers up. You're 

taking the piano exam, are you? 
B: I'm here for my flying lesson. 
A: In a bathing costume? 
B: I always wear a bathing costume. 
Me: You've accepted the bathing costume. 

An interesting offer can be 'The house is on fire!', or 'My heart! 
Quick, my pills!' but it can also be something non-specific. 'All right, 
Where's the parcel?' or 'Shall I sit here, Doctor?' are interesting 
offers, because we want to know what will happen next. Even 'AH 
right, begin' is OK. Your partner can beat you on the head with a 
balloon, and you thank him, and the audience are delighted. 

Here's an example in which A makes dull offers, while B makes 
interesting offers. 

A: (Dull offer.) Good morning! 

B: (Accepts.) Good morning. (Makes interesting offer.) 

Great heavens! Frank! Did they let you out? 

Have you escaped? 
A: (Accepts.) I hid in the laundry van. (Makes dull 

offer.) I see you've had the place redecorated. 
B: (Accepts, makes interesting offer.) Yes ... but .. . 

look . . . about the money. You'll get your share. It 

wasn't my idea to cut you out. I've . . . I've got a 

good business here . . . 

A : (Accepts, makes dull offer.) Yes, it's a step up in 
the world. 

B: (Accepts, makes interesting offer.) It was different 
in the old days ... I ... I didn't mean to rat on 
you Charlie . . . 

The actors have automatically become involved in some sort of 
gangster scene, but all they actually worry about is the category the 
offers fit into. The scene 'looks after itself'. 

Scenes spontaneously generate themselves if both actors offer and 
accept alternately. 

'Haven't we met before?' 

'Yes, wasn't it at the yacht club?' 

'I'm not a member.' 

(Accepts the yacht club. A bad improviser would say 'what yacht 

'Ah, I'm sorry.' 

'That's right. I was in the first form and you were one of the school 
'Snodgrass !' 
'After all these years!' 

'What do you mean, after all these years? It seems only yesterday 
that you were beating me up every lunchtime.' 

'Oh well . . . boys will be boys. Was it you we held out of the 
windows by your feet?' 


'I see you're still wearing the brace.' 

Good improvisers seem telepathic; everything looks prearranged. 
This is because they accept all offers made — which is something no 
'normal' person would do. Also they may accept offers which weren't 
really intended. I tell my actors never to think up an offer, but instead 
to assume that one has already been made. Groucho Marx understood 
this : a contestant at his quiz game 'froze' so he took the man's pulse 
and said, 'Either this man's dead or my watch has stopped.' If you 
notice that you are shorter than your partner you can say 'Simpkins! 
Didn't I forbid you ever to be taller than me?' — which can lead on to 
a scene in which the servant plays on all fours, or a scene in which the 
master is starting to shrink, or a scene in which the servant has been 
replaced by his elder brother, or whatever. If your partner is sweating, 
fan yourself. If he yawns, say 'Late, isn't it?' 


Once you learn to accept offers, then accidents can no longer 
interrupt the action. When someone's chair collapsed Stanislavsky 
berated him for not continuing, for not apologising to the character 
whose house he was in. This attitude makes for something really amaz- 
ing in the theatre. The actor who will accept anything that happens 
seems supernatural; it's the most marvellous thing about improvisa- 
tion: you are suddenly in contact with people who are unbounded, 
whose imagination seems to function without limit. 

By analysing everything into blocks and acceptances, the students 
get insight into the forces that shape the scenes, and they understand 
why certain people seem difficult to work with. 

These 'offer-block-accept' games have a use quite apart from actor 
training. People with dull lives often think that their lives are dull by 
chance. In reality everyone chooses more or less what kind of events 
will happen to them by their conscious patterns of blocking and yield- 
ing. A student objected to this view by saying, 'But you don't choose 
your life. Sometimes you are at the mercy of people who push you 
around.' I said, 'Do you avoid such people?' 'Oh!' she said, 'I see what 
you mean.' 


Here are some games I've used with my students. 
'Two Places' 

You can play very funny scenes in which one char- 
acter plays, for example, waiting at a bus stop, while another character 
claims that the stage is his living-room, and so on. Such scenes exploit 
blocking very successfully. (This game comes from the Royal Court 
Writers' Group, circa 1959.) 


I invented a rather childish game, which is now often 
used with small children, but works really well with grown-ups, if 
you coax them through their initial resistance. 

I divide people into pairs and call them A and B. A gives a present 
to B who receives it. B then gives a present back, and so on. At first 
each person thinks of giving an interesting present, but then I stop 
them and suggest that they can just hold their hands out, and see 
what the other person chooses to take. If you hold out both hands 
about three feet apart, then obviously it will be a larger present, but 


you don't have to determine what your gift is. The trick is to make the 
thing you are given as interesting as possible. You want to 'overaccept' 
the offer. Everything you are given delights you. Maybe you wind it up 
and let it walk about the floor, or you sit it on your arm and let it fly off 
after a small bird, or maybe you put it on and turn into a gorilla. 

An important change of thinking is involved here. When the actor 
concentrates on making the thing he gives interesting, each actor 
seems in competition, and feels it. When they concentrate on making 
the gift they receive interesting, then they generate warmth between 
them. We have strong resistances to being overwhelmed by gifts, 
even when they're just being mimed. You have to get the class en- 
thusiastic enough to go over the 'hump'. Then suddenly great joy 
and energy are released. Playing in gibberish helps. 

'Blind Offers' 

An inexperienced improviser gets annoyed because 
his partners misunderstand him. He holds out his hand to see if it's 
raining, and his partner shakes it and says 'Pleased to meet you.' 'What 
an idiot', thinks the first actor, and begins to sulk. When you make a 
blind offer, you have no intention to communicate at all. Your partner 
accepts the offer, and you say 'Thank you.' Then he makes an inten- 
tionless gesture, and you accept that, and he says 'Thank you' and so 

A strikes a pose. 
B photographs him. 
A says 'Thank you.' 

B stands on one leg, and bends the other. 

A straddles the bent leg and 'nails a horseshoe on it'. 

B thanks him and lies on the ground. 

A mimes shovelling earth over him. 

B thanks him . . . And so on. 

Don't underestimate the value of this game. It's a way of interacting 
that the audience love to see. They will watch fascinated, and every 
time someone says 'Thank you', they laugh! 

It's best to offer a gesture which moves away from the body. When 
you've made a gesture, you then freeze in the position until your 
partner reacts. 

Once the basic technique has been mastered, the next step is to 
get the actors to play the game while discussing some quite different 

'A touch of autumn in the air today, James,' says A, stretching his 

hand out. 'Yes, it is a little brisk,' says B, peeling a glove off A's hand. 
B then lies on the floor. 'Is the Mistress at home?' says A, wiping his 
feet on B . . . and so on. The effect is startling, because each actor 
seems to have a telepathic understanding of the other's intentions. 

It's Tuesday' 

This game is based on 'overaccepting'. We called it 
'It's Tuesday' because that's how we started the game. If A says 
something matter of fact to B, like 'It's Tuesday', then maybe B tears 
his hair, and says 'My God! The Bishop's coming. What'll he do 
when he sees the state everything's in?' or instead of being upset he 
can be overcome with love because it's his wedding day. All that mat- 
ters is that an inconsequential remark should produce the maximum 
possible effect on the person it's said to. 
A: It's Tuesday. 

B : No ... it can't be . . . It's the day predicted for my 
death by the old gypsy! 
(It doesn't matter how crummy the idea is, what matters is the in- 
tensity of the reaction.) Now B turns white, clutches his throat, 
staggers into the audience, reels back, bangs his head on the wall, 
somersaults backwards, and 'dies' making horrible noises, and saying 
at his last gasp: 

B: Feed the goldfish. 
A now plays 'It's Tuesday' on the goldfish remark. Maybe he 
expresses extreme jealousy: 

A: That's all he ever thought about, that goldfish. 
What am I to do now? Haven't I served him 
faithfully all these years? (Weeps on knee of 
audience member.') He's always preferred that 
goldfish to me. Do forgive me, Madam. Does . . . 
does anyone have a Kleenex? Fifty years' supply of 
ants' eggs, and what did he leave to me— not a 
penny. {Throws spectacular temper tantrum.) I shall 
write to Mother. 

This last remark introduces new material, so that B now plays 'It's 
Tuesday' on that. 

B: {Recovering) Your mother! You mean Milly is still 

He then plays passionate yearning, until he can't take the emotion any 
further and throws in another 'ordinary' remark. Any remark will 
do. 'Forgive me Jenkins, I got rather carried away.' Maybe Jenkins 


can then do a five-minute 'hate' tirade: 'Forgive you? After the way 
you hounded her? Turning her out into the snow that Christmas Eve 
. . .' and so on. 

Three or four sentences can easily last ten minutes, when expanded 
a little, and the audience are astounded and delighted. They don't 
expect improvisers, or actors for that matter, to take things to such 

I would classify 'It's Tuesday' as a 'make boring offers, and 
overaccept' game. 

'Yes, But . . .' 

This is a well known 'accept-and-block' game (de- 
scribed in Viola Spolin, Improvisation for the Theatre). (Its twin 
game 'Yes, and . . .' is an 'accept-and-offer' game.) I'll describe it 
because there are two ways of playing which produce opposite results, 
and which tell one a lot about the nature of spontaneity. 

A asks questions that B can say 'Yes' to. B then says 'But . . .' and 
then whatever occurs to him. To play the game badly, B should think 
of his reply before he begins to speak. 

'Excuse me, is that your dog?' 

'Yes, but I'm thinking of selling him.' 

'Will you sell him to me?' 

'Yes, but he's expensive.' 

'Is he healthy?' 

'Yes, but you can take him to a vet to check him out if you like.' 
(And so on.) 

Probably the audience do not laugh, and probably the actors don't 
enjoy the experience much. This is because the more logical, rational 
part of the mind is in control. 

If you reply 'Yes, but . . .' with enthusiasm, as soon as the question 
is put to you, and then say whatever comes into your head, the scenes 
are quite different. I'll play it with myself now, typing as quickly as 

'Don't I know you?' 

'Yes, but I'm going.' 

'You took my money!' 

'Yes, but I've spent it.' 

'You're a swine.' 

'Yes, but everyone knows that.' 

This time an audience would probably laugh. It's worth teaching 
both ways of playing the game. It can demonstrate to uptight people 


exactly how cautious they usually are. Also it's very funny to launch 
out strongly on 'Yes, but . . .*, and then have to complete the sentence 
off the top of your head. 


If the students are in a really happy mood, I might 
ask them to improvise in verse. At first they're appalled. I'll already 
have made them play scenes in gibberish, and as impromptu operas, 
but they'll have been turned off verse by school, while at the same time 
retaining an exaggerated respect for it. 

To me the most enjoyable thing about verse is its spontaneity. You 
can 'fake up' verse by deciding what to write, and then thinking up 
the rhymes, but if you're asked to improvise it you just have to aban- 
don conscious control, and let the words come of their own accord. 

I start to talk in verse, and explain that it doesn't matter whether 
the verse is good or bad, and that anyway we're going to start with 
the worst possible verse : 

'Tom and Else take your places, 
A happy smile on your faces, 
Don't start wondering what to say 
Or we will never start today! 
We'll have Tom come in and propose 
'Cause Else's pregnant, I suppose . . .' 
The worse the verse I speak, the more encouraged the actors are. 
I get them to stop thinking ahead, and just say a line, and trust to luck 
that there'll be something to rhyme with it. If they're in trouble and 
can't think what to say, they're not to rack their brain, and try and 
force their inspiration. I get them to say 'prompt' and then either I 
shout something out, or one of the audience does. 

Once a scene starts, the verse has to control the content and the 
action. Someone says: 

'At last I've got you in my clutches : 
I'll keep you here and take your crutches.' 
He won't make any attempt to mime taking crutches away from his 
partner though, until I yell 'Take the crutches!' Then his partner 
falls over and says : 

'Oh, please Sir Jasper, let me go! 
You must not treat a cripple so . . .' 
'Oh no! I'll not be robbed of my revenge! 
I'll sacrifice you here in old Stonehenge.' 
He makes no attempt to sacrifice her, I have to tell him: 


'Do it— it's what you said! 
Everyone wants to see her dead.' 
'Lie down on yonder block and pray . . . prompt?' 
'I'll kill her at the break of day . . .' suggests someone in the 

No one in their right senses would think up a scene about sacri- 
ficing a cripple at Stonehenge, but the verse precipitates it. My job is 
to get the actors to go where the verse takes them. If you don't care 
what you say, and you go with the verse, the exercise is exhilarating. 
But if an actor suddenly produces a really witty couplet, you'll see 
him suddenly 'dry' as his standard rises, and he tries to produce 
'better' verse. 


Reading about spontaneity won't make you more 
spontaneous, but it may at least stop you heading off in the opposite 
direction; and if you play the exercises with your friends in a good 
spirit, then soon all your thinking will be transformed. Rousseau 
began an essay on education by saying that if we did the opposite of 
what our own teachers did we'd be on the right track, and this still 
holds good. 

The stages I try to take students through involve the realisation (1) 
that we struggle against our imaginations, especially when we try to 
be imaginative; (2) that we are not responsible for the content of our 
imaginations; and (3) that we are not, as we are taught to think, our 
'personalities', but that the imagination is our true self. 


1. I don't know who originated the rubber glove gag, but in his book 
King of Comedy (Peter Davies, 1955) Mack Sennett attributes ic to Felix 

2. Teachers are obliged to impose a censorship on their pupils, and in 
consequence schools provide an anti-therapeutic environment. In 
Interacting with Patients (Macmillan, New York, 1963), a work intended 
for nurses, Joyce Samhammer Hays and Kenneth Larson describe 
therapeutic and non-therapeutic ways of interacting. Here are their first 

~ 'therapeutic techniques'. 

Therapeutic techniques Examples 
Using silence: 

Accepting: Yes. 

Uh Hmm. 

I follow what you said. 

Giving recognition: 

Offering self: 

Giving broad openings : 

Good morning, Mr S. 
You've tooled a leather wallet. 
I notice that you've combed your hair. 
I'll sit with you a while. 
I'll stay here with you. 
I'm interested in your comfort. 
Is there something you'd like to talk 

What are you thinking about? 
Where would you like to begin? 
Go on. 
And then? 
Tell me about it. 
What seemed to lead up to . . .? 
Was this before or after . . .? 
When did this happen? 
You appear tense. 

Are you uncomfortable when you . . . 
I notice you are biting your lips. 
It makes me uncomfortable when 
you . . . 

Tell me when you feel anxious. 
What is happening? 
What does the voice seem to 
Was this something like . . .? 
Have you had similar experiences? 

Obviously the book has psychiatric nurses in mind, but it's interesting 
to compare it to teacher-pupil interactions. Here are the first ten 'non- 
therapeutic techniques'. 

Placing the event in time or in 

Making observations: 

Encouraging description of 

Encouraging comparison : 


Giving approval: 







I wouldn't worry about . . . 

Everything will be all right. 

You're coming along fine. 

That's good. 

I'm glad that you . . . 

Let's not discuss . . . 

I don't want to hear about . 

That's bad. 

I'd rather you wouldn't . . . 
That's right. 
I agree. 
That's wrong. 
I definitely disagree 
I don't believe that. 
I think you should . . . 
Why don't you . . .? 
Now tell me about . . . 


But how can you be President of the 
United States? 

If you're dead, why is your heart beating? 
Testing: What day is this? 

Do you know what kind of a hospital this is? 
Do you still have the idea that . . .? 

I'm doing the book an injustice by quoting out of context, but it's 
widely available, and it analyses many interactions. Schools make it difficult 
for teachers to interact therapeutically. Thinking back to my own schooling, 
I remember how isolated the teachers were, how there were only certain 
areas in which you could communicate with them at all. If teachers were 
allowed to interact in a therapeutic manner, then the adjective 'school- 
teachery' would not be disparaging. 

3. When I meet a new group of students they will usually be 'naysayers'. 
This term and its opposite, 'yeasayers', come from a paper by Arthur 
Couch and Kenneth Kenison, who were investigating the tendency of 
people answering questionnaires to be generally affirmative, or generally 
negative in attitude. They wrote in Freudian terms : 

'We have arrived at a fairly consistent picture of the variables that 
differentiate yeasayers from naysayers. Yeasayers seem to be "id-domin- 
ated" personalities, with little concern about or positive evaluation of an 
integrated control of their impulses. They say they express themselves 
freely and quickly. Their "psychological inertia" is very low, that is, very 
few secondary processes intervene as a screen between underlying wish 
and overt behavioural response. The yeasayers desire and actively search 
for emotional excitement in their environment. Novelty, movement, 
change, adventure — these provide the external stimuli for their emotional- 
ism. They see the world as a stage where the main theme is 'acting out' 
libidinal desires. In the same way, they seek and respond quickly to 
internal stimuli: their inner impulses are allowed ready expression . . . 
the yeasayer's general attitude is one of stimulus acceptance, by which we 
mean a pervasive readiness to respond affirmatively or yield willingly to 
both outer and inner forces demanding expression. 

'The "disagreeing"naysayers have the opposite orientation. For them, 
impulses are seen as forces requiring control, and perhaps in some 
sense as threats to general personality stability. The naysayer wants to 
maintain inner equilibrium; his secondary processes are extremely 
impulsive and value maintaining forces. We might describe this as a state 
of high psychological inertia — impulses undergo a series of delays, 
censorships, and transformations before they are permitted expression. 
Both internal and external stimuli that demand response are carefully 
scrutinised and evaluated: these forces appear as unwelcome intruders 
a subjective world of "classical" balance. Thus, as opposed to the 
the naysayers' general attitude is one of stimulus rejection — 
pervasive unwillingness to respond to impulsive or environmental 
forces.' ('Yeasayers and Naysayers', Journal of Abnormal and Social 
Psychology, Vol. 160, No. 2, i960.) 

4- My impro group used to set up a 'say "Yes" ' game using a tape 


recorder. We would record a one-sided dialogue, and then play the tape 
during a show, and get an actor who did not know what was on the tape to 
improvise with it. It means you have to accept the tape or fail totally, 
since the tape can't adapt to you. One tape ran like this: 

'Hallo. {Pause.) No, no, me, I'm down here. On the footpath. {Pause.) 
I'm an ant. (Pause.) Pick me up, will you? (Pause.) Go careful. (Pause.) 
We want to surrender. (Patue.) We're fed up with being stepped on, 
bloody great things. Dictate your terms. (Pause.) Excuse me interrupting. 
Can you see what I'm holding? (Pause.) Hold me up to your eye. (Pause). 
Closer. (Pause.) Now. Pick up Willy. Put your hand down and he'll 
climb on. Feel him. (Pause.) Put him on your shoulder. (Pause.) You 
may feel him climbing up into your ear. What's that Willy? He says 
there's a lot of wax here. (Pause.) Right now you may hear a son of 
crinkling noise. (Pause.) That's Willy blowing up a paper bag. Any 
trouble from you and he'll burst it against your eardrum. (Pause.) (Huge 
explosion.) Do it again Willy, just to show him. (Explosion. Pause.) Well? 
What have you got to say, ant-murderer? (Pause.) We'll talk later. Get 
moving. Walk. Left, right, left, right . . .' 

5. A Japanese text compares two actors who block each other to 'two 
mantids eating each other. They fight with each other; if one puts out a 
hand it is eaten off; if one puts out a leg, it is eaten off, so that it is natural 
that in the end they destroy each other.' (The Actor's Analects, translated 
by Charles J. Dunn and Bunzo Torigoe, Columbia University Press, 

A problem for the improviser is that the audience are likely to reward 
blocking at the moment it first appears. 
'Your name Smith?' 


They laugh because they enjoy seeing the actors frustrated, just as 
they'll laugh if the actors start to joke. Jokey TV or radio programmes 
usually stop for a song, or some animation, every few minutes. The 
improviser, who is committed to performing for longer periods, gags or 
blocks at his peril, although the immediacy of the audience's laughter is 
likely to condition him to do just this. Once the performers have been 
lured into gagging or blocking, the audience is already on the way towards 
irritation and boredom. More than laughter they want action. 

Narrative Skills 

Playboy. Knife in the Water was an original, and unusual 

screenplay. Where did you get the idea for it? 
Polanski: It was the sum of several desires in me. I loved the 
lake area in Poland and I thought it would make a 
great setting for a film. I was thinking of a film with 
a limited number of people in it as a form of 
challenge. I hadn't ever seen a film with only three 
characters, where no one else even appeared in the 
background. The challenge was to make it in a way 
that the audience wouldn't be aware of the fact that 
no one else had appeared even in the background. 
As for the idea, all I had in mind when I began the 
script was a scene where two men were on a sailboat 
and one fell overboard. But that was a starting-point, 
wouldn't you agree? 
Playboy: Certainly, but a strange one. Why were you thinking 

about a man falling out of a sailboat? 
Polanski : There you go, asking me how to shrink my head again. 

I don't know why. I was interested in creating a mood, 
an atmosphere, and after the film came out, a lot of 
critics found all sorts of symbols and hidden 
meanings in it that I hadn't even thought of. It 
made me sick. (Playboy, December, 1971.) 
I started my work on narrative by trying to make the improvisers 
conscious of the implications of the scenes they played. I felt that an 
artist ought to be 'committed', and that he should be held respon- 
sible for the effects of his work— it seemed only common sense. I got 
my students to analyse the content of Red Riding Hood and The 
Sleeping Beauty and Moby Dick and The Birthday Party, but this made 
them even more inhibited. I didn't realise that if the people who 
lought up Red Riding Hood had been aware of the implications, then 
ey might never have written the story. This was at a time when I 
d no inspiration as a writer at all, but I didn't twig that the more I 
tried to understand the 'real' meaning, the less I wrote. When Pinter 


directs his own plays he may say 'We may assume that what the 
author intended here is . . .' — and this is a sensible attitude: the 
playwright is one person and the director another, even when they 
share the same skull. 

When I ran the Royal Court's script department, I used to read 
about fifty plays a week, and many of them seemed to betray their 
author's conscious intention. At one time there was a glut of plays 
about homosexual lovers whose happiness, or even lives, are destroyed 
by the opposition of ignorant bigots. I didn't see these as pro-homo- 
sexual although I'm sure their authors did. If I wrote such a play my 
homosexuals would live happily ever after, just as my Goldilocks 
would end up living in a commune with the bears. Recent films in 
which the good lawman comes to grief when he tries to fight the 
system ( Walking Tall, Serpico) have the moral 'Don't stick your neck 
out', but this may not be what their directors intend. In the old days 
the honest sheriff was triumphant; nowadays he's crippled, or dead. 
Content lies in the structure, in what happens, not in what the characters 

Even at the level of geometrical signs 'meaning' is ambiguous. A 
cross, a circle, and a swastika contain a 'content' quite apart from 
those which we assign to them. The swastika is symmetrical but 
unbalanced: it's a good sign for power, it has a clawiness about it 
(cartoonists drew swastika spiders scrabbling over the face of Europe). 
The circle is stiller, is a much better sign for eternity, for complete- 
ness. The cross can stand for many things, for a meeting-place, for a 
crossroads, for a kiss, for a reed reflected in a lake, for a mast, for a 
sword — but it isn't meaningless just because the interpretations 
aren't one-for-one. Whatever a cross suggests to us it won't have the 
same associations as a circle, which makes a much better sign for a 
moon, for example, or for pregnancy. Moby Dick may be a symbol 
for the 'life-force', or for 'evil' and we can add anytb'ng it suggests to 
us, but the area of legitimate association is limited, nere are things 
the white whale doesn't symbolise, as well as things it does, and once 
you start combining signs together in a narrative the whole thing 
becomes too complex. A story is as difficult to interpret as a dream, 
and the interpretation of a dream depends on who's doing the in- 
terpreting. When King Lear really gets going — the mad King, the 
man pretending to be mad, the fool paid to be mad, and the whole 
mass of overlapping and contradictory associations — what can the 
spectator sensibly do but be swept away on the flood, and experience 
the play, instead of trying to think what it 'means'. 

My decision was that content should be ignored. This wasn't a 
conclusion I wished to reach, because it contradicted my political 
thinking. I hadn't realised that every play makes a political statement, 
and that the artist only needs to worry about content if he's trying to 
fake up a personality he doesn't actually have, or to express views he 
really isn't in accord with. I tell improvisers to follow the rules and 
see what happens, and not to feel in any way responsible for the 
material that emerges. If you improvise spontaneously in front of an 
audience you have to accept that your innermost self will be revealed. 
The same is true of any artist. If you want to write a 'working-class 
play' then you'd better be working class. If you want your play to be 
religious, then be religious. An artist has to accept what his imagination 
gives him, or screw up his talent. 

Alex Comfort once filmed some of my work, and he seemed surprised I 
when I told him that my students never attacked me physically. He'd 
been explaining that I was really operating as a therapist, that I was 
coaxing students into areas that would normally be 'forbidden', and 
that spontaneity means abandoning some of your defences. 

I didn't have an answer at the time, except to say 'Well, they don't', 
but my refusal to attribute any importance to content may be the 
answer. If my students produce disturbing material I link it with 
ideas of my own, or with something someone else has produced, and I 
stop them feeling isolated or 'peculiar'. Whatever dredges up from 
their unconscious I'll accept, and treat as 'normal'. If I seized on the 
content of scenes as revealing secrets about the student, then I'd be 
perceived as a threat. They'd have to 'love' me, or 'hate' me. I'd have 
negative and positive transference states to contend with— which would 
be a hindrance. 

Once you decide to ignore content it becomes possible to under- 
stand exactly what a narrative is, because you can concentrate on 

My dictionary says a story is 'a sequence of events that have, or are 
alleged to have happened, a series of events that are or might be nar- 
rated ... a person's account of his life or some portion of it ... a 
narrative of real or, more usually fictitious events, designed for the 
entertainment of the hearer . . .' and so on. Even a small child knows 
that a story isn't just a series of events, because he says 'And is that 
the end?' If we say 'A story is a series of events that might be narrated' 
then we beg the question, which is: 'Why do we narrate one series of 
events but not another?' 

I had to decide what a story was, and present a theory that an 


improviser could use on the spur of the moment in any situation. 
Obviously, the 'seventeen basic plots' approach would be too hmiting. 
I needed a way to handle anything that cropped up. 

Suppose I make up a story about meeting a bear in the forest. It 
chases me until I come to a lake. I leap into a boat and row across to an 
island. On the island is a hut. In the hut is a beautiful girl spinning 
golden thread. I make passionate love to the girl . . . 

I am now 'storytelling' but I haven't told a story. Everyone knows 
it isn't finished. I could continue forever in the same way: Next morn- 
ing I am walking around the island when an eagle seizes me and 
carries me high into the sky. I land on a cloud and find a path leading 
to Heaven. To one side of the path I notice a lake with three swans. 
One of the swans suddenly disappears, and an old man stands in his 
place . . . 

The trouble with such a sequence is that there's no place where it 
can stop, or rather, that it can stop anywhere; you are unconsciously 
waiting for another activity to start, not free association, but re- 

Let's begin the story again: I escape from a bear by rowing across to 
an island. Inside a hut on the island is a beautiful girl bathing in a 
wooden tub. I'm making passionate love to her when I happen to 
glance out of the window. If I now see the bear rowing across in a 
second boat, then there was some point in mentioning him in the 
first place. If the girl screams 'My lover!' and hides me under the bed, 
then this is better storytelling, since I've not only reintroduced the 
bear, but I've also linked him to the girl. The bear enters the hut, 
unzips his skin, and emerges as the grey old man who makes love to 
the girl. I creep out of the hut taking the skin with me so that he can't 
change back into a bear. I run down to the shore and row back to the 
mainland, towing the second boat behind me (reintroducing the 
boats). Then I see the old man paddling after me in the tub. He seems 
incredibly strong and there's no escape from him. I wait for him 
among the trees, and pull the bearskin around myself. I become a 
bear and tear him to pieces — thus I've reincorporated both the man 
and the skin. I row back to the island and find the girl has vanished. 
The hut has become very old and the roof is sagging in, and trees that 
were young saplings are now very tall. Then I try to remove the skin 
and I find it's sealed up around me. 

At this point a child would probably say 'And is that the end?' 
because clearly some sort of pattern has been completed. Yet at no 
time have I thought about the content of the scene. I presume it's 

about sexual anxieties and fear of old age, or whatever. Had I 'known' 
this, then I wouldn't have constructed that particular story, but as 
usual the content has looked after itself, and anyway is only of interest 
to critics or psychologists. What matters to me is the ease with which 
I 'free-associate' and the skill with which I reincorporate. 

Here's a 'good night' story made up by me and Dorcas (age six). 

'What do you want a story about?' I asked. 

'A little bird,' she said. 

'That's right. And where did this little bird live?' 
'With Mummy and Daddy bird.' 

'Mummy and Daddy looked out of the nest one day and saw a man 
coming through the trees. What did he have in his hand?' 
'An axe.' 

'And he took the axe and started chopping down all the trees with 
a white mark on. So Daddy bird flew out of the nest, and do you know 
what he saw on the bark of his tree?' 

'A white mark.' 

'Which meant?' 

'The man was going to cut down their tree.' 

'So the birds all flew down to the river. Who did they meet?' 

'Mr Elephant.' 

'Yes. And Mr Elephant filled his trunk with water and washed the 
white mark away from the tree. And what did he do with the water 
left in his trunk?' 

'He squirted it over the man.' 

'That's right. And he chased the man right out of the forest and the 
man never came back.' 

'And is that the end of the story?' 
'It is.' 

At the age of six she has a better understanding of storytelling than 
many university students. She links the man to the birds by giving 
him an axe. She links up the water left in the trunk with the wood- 
cutter, whom she remembers we'd shelved. She isn't concerned with 
content but any narrative will have some (about insecurity, I sup- 

I say to an actress, 'Make up a story.' She looks desperate, and says, 
T can't think of one.' 

'Any story,' I say. 'Make up a silly one.' 
'I can't,' she despairs. 

'Suppose I think of one and you guess what it is.' 

At once she relaxes, and it's obvious how very tense she was. 


'I've thought of one,' I say, but I'll only answer "Yes", "No", or 

She likes this idea and agrees, having no idea that I'm planning to 
say 'Yes' to any question that ends in a vowel, 'No' to any question 
that ends in a consonant, and 'Maybe' to any question that ends with 
the lener 'Y'. 

For example, should she ask me 'Is it about a horse?' I'll answer 
'Yes' since 'horse' ends in an 'E'. 
'Does the horse have a bad le£?' 

'Does it run awa^?' 
'Maybe . . .' 

She can now invent a story easily, but she doesn't feel obliged to be 
'creative', or 'sensitive' or whatever, because she believes the story is 
my invention. She no longer feels wary, and open to hostile criticism, 
as of course we all are in this culture whenever we do anything 
spontaneously. Her first question is: 

'Has the story got any people in it?' 


'Has it got animals in it?' 

'Has it got buildings in it?' 

'Yes.' (I'm having to drop my rule about consonants, or she'd get 
too discouraged.) 
'Does the building have anything to do with the story?' 

'Does it have aeroplanes in it?' 






'Do the insects play a large part in the story?' 

'Do they live underground?' 

'Do they start out as harmless?' 

'Do the insects take over the world?' 

'Are they as big as elephants?' 



'Do they take any poison?' 

'Is it a gradual process, this taking over of the world?' 

'Were there many insects?' 

'Do the insects gain anything by destroying the world?' 

'Do they reign utterly alone?' 

'Do they destroy the world in a foul manner?' 

'Does the story begin with their existing?' 

'But there aren't any people in this bloody story. So it must start 
with the insects. Have the insects been reigning alone in the world for 
a long time?' 


'Do they live in the buildings that used to be the people's buildings?' 

'And then they suddenly decide to destroy the world?' 

'And they don't die. And when they eat everything in sight they 
become larger?' 

'And then they can't fit into the buildings again?' 

'And is that the end of the story?' 
'It is.' 

If she got more than two 'Nos' in a row I sometimes said 'Yes' to 
encourage her, and in the end I said 'yes' all the time because she was 
getting discouraged. We used to play this game at parties, and people 
who claim to be unimaginative would think up the most astounding 
stories, so long as they remained convinced that they weren't re- 
sponsible for them. The great joke was to lure somebody into inventing 
a story about a midget dentist sexually assaulting Siamese twins, or 
whatever, wait until he accused you of having really perverted minds, 
and then explain triumphantly that he had created the story himself. 
Faubion Bowers once wrote an article on this game, in, I think, 


To some extent such stories are due to chance, but you can see in 
the last example that a story is struggling to get out. She doesn't ask 
'Are the insects harmless?', she says 'Do they start out as harmless?' 
so that you know she has the intention of creating some destructive 
force. She also wants them to be big. She says 'Are they as big as 
elephants?' and gets the answer 'No', but she still ends up getting them 
gigantic, since they eat so much that they can't fit into the buildings. 
She's been lured into constructing one of the basic myths of our culture, 
the apparently harmless force that destroys the environment — and 
itself. Notice how she shapes the story by recapitulation. She links 
the buildings and the insects, and she reintroduces the buildings again 
at the end. She says, 'Is that the end?' because she knows she's linked 
up the story. It must be obvious that when someone insists that they 
'can't think up a story', they really mean that they 'won't think up a 
story'— which is OK by me, so long as they understand it's a refusal, 
rather than a 'lack of talent'. 


The improviser has to be like a man walking back- 
wards. He sees where he has been, but he pays no attention to the 
future. His story can take him anywhere, but he must still 'balance' it, 
and give it shape, by remembering incidents that have been shelved 
and reincorporating them. Very often an audience will applaud when 
earlier material is brought back into the story. They couldn't tell you 
why they applaud, but the reincorporation does give them pleasure. 
Sometimes they even cheer! They admire the improviser's grasp, 
since he not only generates new material, but remembers and makes 
use of earlier events that the audience itself may have temporarily 

It seems obvious to teach storytelling as two separate activities. I 
get the actors to work in pairs, with Actor A telling a story for thirty 
seconds, and then with Actor B finishing it for thirty seconds. Actor A 
is to provide disconnected material, and Actor B is somehow to con- 
nect it. 

A : It was a cold winter's night. The wolves howled in 
the trees. The concert pianist adjusted his sleeves 
and began to play. An old lady was shovelling snow 
from her door . . . 

B : . . . When she heard the piano the little old lady 
began shovelling at fantastic speed. When she 

reached the concert hall she cried, 'That pianist is 
my son!' Wolves appeared at all the windows, and 
the pianist sprang on to the piano, thick fur growing 
visibly from under his clothes. 

Or again: 

A : An old lady sits in her lighthouse very worried 
because the sea has dried up and there are no ships 
for her light to warn. In the middle of the desert a 
tap has been dripping since the beginning of time. 
In the heart of the jungle, in a little hut, an old 
man sits cross-legged . . . 

B: . . . 'I can't stand that dripping sound,' he cries, 
leaping up and making a great journey to the centre 
of the desert. Nothing he can do will stop the tap 
dripping. 'At least I can turn it on,' he cries. 
Immediately the desert flourishes, the seas fill up 
again, and the old lady is very happy. She travels to 
the jungle to thank the old man, and ever afterwards 
keeps a picture of him and his hut above the 
mantelpiece in the lighthouse. 

And again: 

A: A man sits in a cave surrounded by pieces of 
bicycles. There is a fire outside the cave, and a 
woman is sending up smoke signals. Some children 
are playing in the river. An aeroplane passes over 
the valley and breaks the sound barrier . . . 

B : . . . The sonic boom makes the children look up. 
They see the smoke signals. 'Daddy mended the 
bicycles,' they shout. When they run back to the 
cave a strange sight meets their eyes: not bicycles, 
but a flying-machine made out of all the pieces. 
Leaping on, they all pedal into the air, and fly 
around the valley all day. 
Sometimes Actor A will try to make it 'easy' for Actor B. This 
actually makes it more difficult. 

A : There was a little old lady in Putney who ran a 
fish-and-cbip shop. All the people liked her, 
especially the local cats, because she used to give 
them scraps of fish. Also she didn't charge much, 
not to poor people, so they saved up and bought 
her a birthday present . . . 




B: There's nothing for me to do. She's joined it all up 
Me: True! 

I'm not saying that this method produces great literature, but you 
can get people inventing stories who previously claimed they could 
never think of any. 

Once people have learned to play each stage of this game with no 
effort or anxiety, I let them play both halves themselves. I say 'Free- 
associate', and then when they've produced unconnected material, 
fl say 'Connect', or 'Reincorporate'. 

A knowledge of this game is very useful to a writer. First of all it 
' encourages you to write whatever you feel like; it also means that you 
look bac/i v/hcn you get stuck, instead of searching forwar ds. You look 
for things you've shelved, and then reinclude them. 

If I want people to free-associate, then I have to create an environ- 
ment in which they aren't going to be punished, or in any way held 
responsible for the things their imagination gives them. I devise 
techniques for taking the responsibility away from the personality. 
Some of these games are very enjoyable and others, at first encounter, 
are rather frightening; people who play them alter their view of 
themselves. I protect the students, encourage them and reassure them 
that they'll come to no harm, and then coax them or trick them into 
letting the imagination off its leash. 

One way to bypass the censor who holds our spontaneity in check 
is to distract him, or overload him. I might ask someone to write out a 
paragraph on paper (without premeditation) while counting back- 
wards aloud from a hundred. I'll try it now as I'm typing: 
/ 'Extra. I fall through the first storey of the car park. The driver 
throughout the night thought the soft concrete slit his genitals 
! thoughtfully. Nurse Grimshaw fell further . . .' 

I got to sixty until I felt my brain was going to explode. It's like 
trying to write after a severe concussion. Try it. It's very surprising to 
see what something in you 'wants' to write when it gets the chance. 

You might try drawing a picture with two hands at once. The trick 
is to keep your attention equally divided, rather than switching quickly 
from hand to hand. Also you shouldn't decide what to draw; just sit 
down with a blank mind and draw as quickly as possible. This re- 
gresses your mind to about five years of age. Curiously, each hand 
seems to draw with the same level of s 




If I tell a student, 'Say a word', he'll probably gawp. 
He wants a context in which his answer will be 'right'. He wants his 
answer to bring credit to him, that's what he's been taught answers 
are for. 

'Why can't you just say whatever comes into your head?' 

'Yes, well, I don't want to speak nonsense.' 

'Any word would have done. A spontaneous reply is never non- 
sense.' This puzzles him. 

'All right,' I say, 'just name me a list of objects, but as quick as you 

'Er . . . cat, dog, mouse, trap, dark cellar . . .' 

He trails off, because he feels that the list is somehow revealing 
something about himself. He wants to keep his defences up. When 
you act or speak spontaneously, you reveal your real self, as opposed 
to the self you've been trained to present. 

Nonsense results from a scrambling process, and takes time. You 
have to consider your thought, decide whether it gives you away, and 
then distort it, or replace it with something else. The student's 'trap' 
and 'dark cellar' were threatening to release some anxiety in him. If 
he'd continued with the list, speaking as quickly as possible, he'd 
have revealed himself as not quite so sane and secure as he pretends. 
I'll try typing out some nonsense as fast as I can and see what I get. 

'The lobster bites the foot. Freda leaps skyward, back falling 
prone on to the long breakwater. Archie Pellingoe the geologist 
leaping up around down and upon her lovingly chews her alabaster 
sandwich . . .' 

This is still partly scrambled, because I can't type quickly enough. 
I managed to censor some of it, but I wasn't able to remove all the 
sexual content. I veered away from the lobster suspecting the image 
to be vaguely erotic, but it got worse. The only way I could have 
made it meaningless would be to type more slowly, and to substitute 
other images. This is what my students do all the time. I ask them for 
an idea and they say '. . . oh . . . aahh . . . um . . .' as if they couldn't 
think of one. The brain constructs the universe for us, so how is it 
possible to be 'stuck' for an idea? The student hesitates not because 
he doesn't have an idea, but to conceal the inappropriate ones that 
arrive uninvited. 


I make my students improvise lists of objects to make them under- 
stand that there are two processes they can use. You can make 
rational jumps from one object to the next: 'Dog, cat, milk, saucer, 
spoon, fork . . .' or you can improvise a non-associative list. I'll type 
out one as quickly as I can. 'Duck, rhomboid, platypus, elephant's egg, 
cactus, Johnnie Ray, clock face, East Acton . . .' It's like emptying all 
sorts of garbage from your mind that you didn't know was there. 
Try it. It's more difficult than you think, but it stops people caring 
what comes out of their minds. I'll try again. 'Dead nun, postbox, 
car-o-nine-tails, cement hopper, mouse-juice, Pope Urban the Eighth, 
a blob, giant opera singer, piece of lettuce, a kazoo, a vivisected 
clown, a lump of interstellar dust, limpet shell, moving lava, red 
minibus, stamen, sickle-cell anaemia . . .' 

A sequential list feels like one you 'think up'. A non-sequential 
list seems to arrive by itself. One day I'm sure there'll be an explana- 
tion for the two processes. Students choose the first way, and have 
to be coaxed into attempting the second. They feel as if they're 
being bombarded with the thoughts of someone else. They can't 
understand why such bizarre lists should occur to them. I tell them 
that it's perfectly natural, and that hypnagogic images come in the 
same way. 

Associating Images 

One of the earliest games we played at the studio 
involved associating images. We developed it from word-association 
games and we found that if someone gives an image suddenly, this will 
automatically trigger off another image in his partner's mind. Some- 
one says 'A lobster . . .' and someone answers 'With a flower in its 
claw', and the juxtaposition does imply a content: 'A torn photo- 
graph ...''... An empty room'; 'Basket of eggs Cement 
mixer'. Afterwards you can see that a lobster with a flower in its claw 
is a good symbol of insensitivity, for someone locked out of the world 
of feeling, and so on, yet none of these associations were conscious at 
the moment that the pairing image jerked out. 

Here's some genuine nonsense assembled by C. E. Shannon and 
based on word-probabilities : 

'The head and frontal attack on an English writer that the character 
of this point is therefore another method for the letters that the time 
of whoever told the problem for an unexpected . . .' and so on. This is 
not the sort of thing spewed out by the unconscious. 



One way to trigger off narrative material is to put the 
students in groups of three, and have them invent a name for a char- 
acter, and see if they can agree on what he's like. For example: 

'Betty Plum.' 

'Big breasts.' 

'Yes. A barmaid.' 

'Er . . .* 

'Well, she has worked as a barmaid . . * 

'Lives in a room with blue curtains.' 
'A stuffed toy dog on the dresser . . .' 
'Which she keeps her nightdress in.' 

The group continue until they know who she lives with, her taste 
in music, her secret ambition, the sorrow in her life, etc. The import- 
ant thing is that the students should really agree, they shouldn't just 
make compromises. As soon as one person disagrees they wipe the 
character out, and start on another. Soon they learn to develop a 
character much further, and in a way that satisfies all of them. 
'George Honeywell — keeps bees — smokes a pipe — married — was 
married— in love with the daughter of the tobacconist— wears a 
soft cap— he's a voyeur— likes dogs . . .' And so on. 

Automatic Writing 

Automatic writing is one way of getting students to 
understand that there is 'something inside them besides themselves'. 
Normally this skill is rare, but I have invented a method that works 
for most people ; actually I suppose I should call it 'automatic reading'. 
Here's how I coaxed a poem from a volunteer at a public lecture. 

'Mime taking a book from a shelf,' I said. 


'What colour is it?' 

'Did you have to think up the colour or did you see it?' 
Tt was blue.' 

'Open it at the flyleaf. Can you see the name of the publisher?' 
'It's faint.' 
'Spell it.' 

'H . . . o . . . d . . . Hodson.' 
'And the name of the book?' 


7* . . .' 
'The . . .' 

'Yes ... try to spell it.' 
'C . . . country.' 
'In the Country . . . author?' 
'Alex . . . ander Pope.' 

'Open it till you come to a page of verse. What's the page number?' 


'Find me a line of verse.' 

'So that we . . .' 

'Are you seeing it or inventing it?' 
'Seeing it.' 
'Next word.' 
'It's blurred.' 

'I've given you a magnifying-glass . . .' 

I continued drawing the poem out of her, until she'd 'read' two 
verses. Then I stopped because she was finding the experience 
frightening. So did the audience, because it really didn't seem to be a 
poem she was inventing, yet someone was inventing it. 

So that we can be happy 

Together in our loves 

Since you were away 

I have been alone. 

Having been so close 
I cannot live again 
Many years will pass 
Till I live again. 

The personality will often try to resist this method by saying 'It's in 
Russian', or 'It's too tiny to read the print', and so on. I say 'There's 
something written in English in the margin' or 'I'm shrinking you 
down to the size of the book', or something suitable. It's easy to 
switch from 'automatic reading' to my form of 'automatic writing'. 
You just look at a blank sheet of paper, and 'see' a word, and then 
write it where you 'saw' it. I've filled many exercise books using this 
method, partly to see where it led me, and partly to know what hap- 
pens if you go past the point where you feel impelled to stop. I've 
learned a lot about myself this way. Again there's a great gap between 
what I would choose to write, and what actually emerges. Here's a bit 
that sounds like a statement about the imagination. 

The great dragon dare not stir 
The trainer watches kindly but 
At the slightest movement taps it on the nose 
The eyes glint fire and yet the muscles dare 
Not exert themselves nor let the flame burst forth 
Which would engulf the city in one flash. 
The trainer speaks of kindness and consoles 
And says he is the dragon's only friend 
Sometimes the dragon purrs but oh the pain 
Of never moving those enormous limbs. 

Here's another one, not at all like 'my' writing. 


The vanes split apart 

All the mechanism rusts 
Growing children talk 
Words turn to dust. 

Look where the ocean 

Clogged with oil stands 
Still struggling seabird 
Below on black sand. 

Where on the headland 

Does a lighthouse blaze now? 
The endless waves mount 
Desire fails below. 


A game we got from America uses relaxation to bypass 
the censor. It's used by psychologists, and I've seen dire warnings 
about other people using it. Most psychologists who use games rely 
very heavily on the discoveries of people working in the theatre, and 
my guess is that the 'guided dream' came from the theatre in the first 
place. (Frederick Perls says he was once a pupil of Max Reinhardt !) 
Anyway, I think the warnings are due to the same kind of fear that 
Mask work and hypnosis inspire. It's true that if someone is hovering 
on the edge of insanity one little push may topple him over, but a bus 
trip can be just as disturbing as anything that happens in a theatre class. 

If I get you to lie down, close your eyes and relax, and report what 
your imagination gives you, then you'll probably go into a deep 


state of absorption, and instead of 'thinking things up' the experiences 
will seem to be really happening to you. Afterwards, if I ask 'Did you 
feel the floor?' then you'U probably say, 'There wasn't any floor.' If I 
say, 'Did you experience your body?' you'll probably answer, 'I wasn't 
in my body' or 'I was in the body I had in the story.' 

I begin by suggesting something like 'You're on a beach?' 


'Is it sandy or stony?' 

'Did you think that up?' 
'No, I just knew.' 

It's very likely that the student will want to stay on the beach and 
not be moved. I ask if he can see anything, or anyone, but he'll usually 
be alone. I tell him he's lain on the beach a long time, and then I 
suggest that he moves to the water, or away from it. If I don't tell him 
he's been there a long time, he'U probably refuse to 'get up'. The sort 
of story I'll expect to get may involve him walking along the shore, 
passing a cave. I may suggest he looks in the cave, or wades into the 
ocean, but probably he'll prefer to go on walking. Maybe he walks up 
to the top of the cliffs and looks down. Then I stop him. 

Most people will have a good experience with this game, and 
sometimes it's like paradise. It can also be pretty hellish. I watch 
their breathing, and if they seem alarmed I take them out, or steer 
them towards something less alarming. I coax them near to threaten- 
ing areas: I'll suggest they enter the cave or swim in the ocean, but I 
won't push them. 

Once the basic technique is mastered, I let students try it again. 
This time they'll be bolder. They'll encounter other people, they'll 
have adventures, but I'll still guide them away from 'bad trips'. I'm 
using the game to demonstrate to the student that he can be effortlessly 
creative, not to teach him that his imagination is terrifying and 
should be suppressed! People can get upset playing the game, but if 
they weep you can cuddle them, which makes them feel better. When 
people abreact I always establish that (i) it's good for them; (2) 
they'll feel marvellous in half an hour; (3) it 'happens to everybody'. 

Advanced students, whom you know well, may want to set off on 
deeper and more fearful journeys. That's all right when they know 
what they're doing. One way is to have them cuddled by other 
students while they play the game. If they start to express great alarm, 
take them out, be calm, tell them to open their eyes, rock them if 
necessary. Two people can go on a journey together, each trying to 

have the same fantasy. The essential thing is not that the student 
should abreact, but that he should have the experience of imagining 
something 'effortlessly', and 'choicelessly'. He should understand 
through this game that he doesn't have to do anything in order to 
imagine, any more than he needs to do anything in order to relax or 

Here's a dream in which I was the questioner, and the 'victim' a 
drama student. 
'What sort of stories do you like?' 

'Science fiction. Well . . . Tolkien. Stories like The Hobbit.' 

'OK. Imagine a lake surrounded by mountains.' 


'You are swimming in the lake.' 

'Can you see any fish?' 

'Large ones?' 

'Shoals of little ones turning and darting?' 

'There is one particular fish. What do you do with it?' 
'I catch it.' 

'You swim back to the shore and three hooded figures are waiting 
for you. What do you give them?' 
•The fish.' 

'And what do they give you in exchange?' 
'A stick.' 

'What do you do with it?' 

T point it at an oak tree and it vanishes.' 

'And then?' 

'I point it at the three hooded figures and they vanish too.' 

'You set out through the woods. Does the path lead up or down?' 


'What do you hear? Is it from your right or your left?' 
'Left. Someone crying.' 

'You look down into a clearing and see a woman surrounded by . . .?' 
'Little men.' 

'What's she wearing? Anything?' 

'She's naked.' 

'The little men see you?' 

'They're coming at me waving sticks.' 


'The woman calls to them?' 

'She says it's not me who did it.' 

'Was it someone from the castle?' 

'Yes, he threw her out naked into the forest.' 

'Do you help her?' 


'Do you go up the path?' 

'I put my cloak round her and we set off to the castle.' 

'It gets dark?' 


'And you are going to sleep?' 

'We cover ourselves with leaves and we he about eight feet apart.' 
'You're fast asleep when you wake up to feel her touching you.' 

'What's she after?' 
'The stick.' 
'Does she get it?" 

'She points it at you and what happens?' 
'It goes all grey and wintry.' 
'What do you see in the mist?' 

'A huge oak tree, and three hooded figures leaping about and 

At this point the story has obviously ended (because of a brilliant 
reincorporation), and we roll about on the floor roaring with laughter. 
We're very pleased to have co-operated so effortlessly. 

You'll notice that my suggestions are mostly in the form of quest- 
ions. He said 'Yes' to most of them, because we had a good rapport, 
and I knew what to ask. Such 'dreams' are intensely real to the person 
lying down, and pretty vivid to the questioner. This happened years 
ago, but I still have the 'vision' of the story sharp in my mind. I 
could easily draw illustrations to every part of it. To be a good 
questioner you have to enter something like the same trance state as 
the person answering. 


When Vahktangov, one of Stanislavsky's favourite 
pupils, was directing Turandot he asked the wise men to set them- 
selves impossible problems. When they were onstage they were 
always to be secretly trying to solve problems like 'How do you make 
a fly the size of an elephant?' 

I adapted this idea to use in 'interviews'. One actor plays a TV 
interviewer, and his partner becomes an 'expert' who has to convince 
us that he's an authority on his subject. 

The best way to think up the questions is to start a sentence 
without knowing how it's going to end. You say: 'Good evening . . . 
We are fortunate enough to have Professor Trout in the studio with 
us, who has just returned from Africa where he has been teaching 
hippopotamuses to . . .' You have no idea what to say next, but almost 
anything will do : '. . . to do handstands' or '. . . to yodel'. If you try to 
'think up' impossible questions, it's very difficult. Once you start the 
sentence 'How do you turn a pig into . . .' it's very easy to conclude it 
'. . . a fire station'. 

If you are asked, 'How do you teach hippopotamuses to knit?' you 
are likely to hedge : 'Well now, we have, as you know, a large number 
of these hippopotamuses which the Government has assembled in the 
hope that they will eventually boost Kenya's export trade. We're 
hoping to sell about ten thousand pullovers a year soon.' You waffle 
on like that, hoping that a nice idea will occur to you, but this isn't a 
good way of really amazing an audience. It's much better to give any 
answer. The interviewer's job is to hold the 'expert' to the problem of 

'Yes, but how exactly did you teach them?' 
'It was the carrot and the whip really.' 
'But what techniques?' 

The 'expert' has agreed to answer the problem as part of the game, 
and he understands that the interviewer is trying to help him in 
demanding an immediate answer. Once he 'jumps in', and stops hedg- 
ing, the game is simple. 

"Well, I demonstrated the stitches. Then I gave them sharpened 
telegraph poles and about a mile of barbed wire.' 

'Didn't they have trouble holding onto the poles?' 

'Yes, well they would. They lack the opposed thumb. They do have 
quite good co-ordination though, and are very suited to activities of a 
repetitive nature.' 

'But how exactly did they hold the poles?' 

'Ah! Leather pole-holders strapped on to the forearms, or, er, in 
common parlance, feet.' 

'But the pullovers, weren't they rather uncomfortable?' 

'Terrible. We were starting with barbed wire and telegraph poles 
just to give them the general idea. If you try with wool right away, 
they keep snapping it.' 


'It's all a matter of grading. You get 'em on to rope, and then 
string, and finally they'll be doing crochet.' 
'Do you have any examples of their work?' 

'I'm wearing it. Every article of my clothing was knitted by the 
Kilimanjaro Hippo Co-operative.' (And so on.) 

It's a little difficult on the printed page to show how pleasurable 
the game is. It's not so much what is said, but the expert's eagerness 
to supply instant answers. The audience know that they'd hedge, and 
beat about the bush, and they have a great respect for a performer who 
doesn't try any evasions. Sometimes such interviews are hysterically 
funny. It's very good if the interviewer refers to 'charts' that he 
imagines on the wall, and asks the 'expert' to explain them, or if the 
activity can be demonstrated. If you've been teaching mushrooms to 
yodel, the interviewer can say, 'I believe you've brought some of your 
soloists with you this evening.' Anyone from the audience would 
hastily deny this. It's so nice when the expert says 'Yes' and calls 
them in, or mimes taking them out of his pocket. 

'Verbal Chase' 

Students can become better at playing 'Experts' if they 
play a 'verbal chase' game first. 

For example : Suppose I say 'Imagine a box.' A student can predict 
that the next thing I will say is something like 'What's in it?' Instead 
I say 'Who put you in there?' 'My father,' he says, anticipating a 
further question like 'Why did he put you there?' Instead I say 'What 
have you got in there with you?'. He replies 'A toilet'. I don't know 
what he anticipates now, but certainly not what I do say, which is 
'What's written on the outside of the box?' 'Ladies!' he says, col- 
lapsing with laughter. 

We all laugh, I suppose because of the implied homosexuality. If 
I were to point this out, then the student would feel the need to 
guard against me. Instead, I ignore the content, and concentrate on 
trying to jerk the answers out of the student as quickly as possible. 

I say to another student: 'You're in a street. What street are you 

'Main street.' 
'What's the shop?' 
'A fishmonger's.' 

'What does the fishmonger point at you?' 
'A pistol.' 


'What comes out?' 

Again everyone laughs and is very pleased. Answering such 
questions is easy. Asking them is very difficult, because you have to 
change the 'set' of the questions each time. Here's a sequence re- 
corded in connection with a TV show. I was working with a girl 
student I'd just met for the first time. 

'Where are you?' 


'You're not. Where are you?' 
'In a box.' 

'Who put you there?' 

'She's not really your mummy. Who is she?' 

'She's my aunt.' 

'What's her secret plan?' 

'To kill me.' 

'What with?' 

'A knife.' 

'She sticks the knife where?' 

This question freaks her, because it's so sexual. 

'In ... in ... in my stomach.' 

'She cuts it open and takes out a handful of papery . . 

'On the boxes is written . . .?' 
' "Help!" ' 
'Who wrote it?' 
'I did.' 

'Who's in the box? Crawling out?' 
'A spider.' 

'A spider marked . . .?' 
' "YES".' 

'The spider does what?' 
'It eats me.' 

'Inside the spider you meet?" 

'My father.' 


'A ... a ... a .. . elephant.' 

'By the . . .' 


Everyone falls about with laughter, as if we'd been telling jokes, 


and they understand that some sort of sequence has come to an end. 
A student who becomes an expert questioner, that is, who becomes 
very ingenious at changing the 'set' of the questions, becomes a better 
improviser. Speed is important, so that the questions and answers are a 
little too fast for 'normal' thought. 

Some questioners start doing all the work. For example: 

'You're walking along a road.' 


'You meet a giant.' 

'You fall into a pool and are eaten by crocodiles.' 


This could be rephrased, and would then work. 
'You're walking along — what?' 
'A road.' 

'A giant does what to you?' 
'Throws me into a pond.' 
'What do the crocodiles bite?' 

The more 'insane' the questions, the better in jerking spontaneous 
answers from the 'victim'. 

'Word at a Time' 

If I ask someone to invent the first line of a short 
story, he'll unconsciously rephrase the question. He'll tense up, and 
probably say 'I can't think of one.' He'll really act as if he's been asked 
for a good first line. Any first line is really as good as any other, but the 
student imagines that he's being asked to think up dozens of first 
lines, then imagine the type of stories they might give rise to, and then 
assess the stories to find the best one. This is why he looks appalled and 
mumbles '. . . oh . . . dor . . . um . . .' 

Even if I ask some people for the first word of a short story they'll 
panic and claim that they 'can't think of one', which is really amazing. 
The question baffles them because they can't see how to use it to 
display their 'originality' ... A word like 'the' or 'once' isn't good 
enough for them. 

If I ask one student for the first word of a story, and another for the 
second word, and another for the third word, and so on, then we 
could compose a story in this way: 

'There' . . . 'was' ... 'a' ... 'man' . . . 'who' . . . 'loved' . . . 
'making' . . . 'people' . . . 'happy'. 


One version of the game— which I still play occasionally— involved 
telling a story around a circle as quickly as possible. Sometimes we 
did it to a beat. Anyone who 'blocked' we threw out until only two 
people were left. You can make the game tougher by having each 
person who speaks point to the person who is to say the next word, 
there's no way to anticipate when your turn will come. 

Anyone who tries to control the future of the story can only suc- 
ceed in ruining it. Every time you add a word, you know what word 
you would like to follow. Unless you can continually wipe your ideas 
out of your mind you're paralysed. You can't adapt to the words said 
by other people. 

'We . . . (went for a walk) . . .' 

'Are . . . (nice people) . . .' 

'Going ... (to the circus) . . .' 

'Away . . . (for a holiday) . . .' 

'To . . . (the country) . . .' 

'Explore . . . (the Amazon) . . .' 

'A . . . (cave) . . .' 


Once you say whatever comes to mind, then it's as if the story is 
being told by some outside force. I wouldn't be surprised to find that 
there are cultures which use the method as a form of divination. The 
group learn that this method of storytelling won't work unless they 
relax, stop worrying about being 'obvious' and remain attentive. I have 
played it in darkened rooms with the group lying on their backs with 
their heads at the centre of a circle. I remember at RADA we once 
pulled curtains over ourselves and lay there like a huge pudding. 
After the group has played the game with their eyes shut, get them to 
walk about and observe any perceptual changes. (Colours become 
brighter, people and spaces seem of a different size, focus is sharper.) 
Our normal thinking dulls perception, but the word-at-a-time game 
can shut some of the normal screening off. (It's not a good game for 
German speakers because of the rules about verbs coming at the 

I divide students into groups of four and get them to compose 
'letters' a word at a time. They all relax and one of the players writes 
the letter down. I was describing this technique to an Eng. Lit. 

'I don't think I could ever learn such a game,' she said 
'Try it,' I said, and wrote '89' at the top of a sheet of paper. 
'What's that?' she asked. 


'The beginning of the address.' 
'I don't know what to put.' 

This intelligent girl was suffering. She was claiming to be 'un- 
creative' but was really just terrified she'd give something away. 
'You know how addresses start on letters.' 
'Well . . . all right. "The".' 
'Elms', I wrote. 

'89 The Elms can't be an address.' 
'It'll do.' 

'I can't think of anything else. I've got a block.' 
I wrote 'block' down. Then I wrote 'Jan'. 
'March' she said, looking helpful. 

I put an oblique stroke between 'Jan' and 'March'. She looked as 
if she was under great stress. She wanted to fail but didn't know how 
to. She was afraid that the game might make her reveal secret things 
about herself. 

'Dear', I wrote. 

'Henry', she said after a long pause. 


'I don't know who to put.' 

'Any name. There isn't any way to choose a name that's wrong.' 
'Exeter', she said, and seemed suddenly to realise that the game 
could be fun. The completed 'letter' read like this: 

89 The Elms Block 

Dear Henry, 

I hope Mrs Exeter has been behaving well. Mum hopes that 
you will take off your bra. You will not proceed to any other 
perversions. The Vicar says Mrs White is a cow. Do you allow 
Mrs White to help you go to the bathroom? 

Yours sincerely, 

PS I hate you. 

Not an inspired letter, but once she got over her initial resistance 
she became fascinated by the game, and played it many times. 

Word-at-a-time letters usually go through four stages: (1) the 
letters are usually cautious or nonsensical and full of concealed sexual 
references ; (2) the letters are obscene and psychotic ; (3) they are full 

of religious feeling; (4) finally, they express vulnerability and loneli- 

Improvisations go through similar stages if you don't censor them, 
and if you work with the same group day after day. Here is a sequence 
of 'letters' which were written late one night, by three drama students 
(two boys and a girl). They said it took them a couple of hours, what 
with talking, and opening more beers, and so on. I'd told them that 
the stories changed if they persisted in writing them, but I hadn't told 
them what to expect. They stopped when they were too scared to 
write any more. You can see the 'armour' peeling off letter by letter. 
Some of the paragraphs have titles, which I think were arrived at by 
spelling them out a letter at a time. 

1. 'How did he walk on the water when it was raining? I don't think 
that God exists (in garbage cans). Polacks began to fix their dynamite 
to the end of their tools which shuddered and vibrated radically. 
"John is a prick," said Mary, "why can't he fuck my arse, the bastard !" 
Jeremy and Fiona lay in a compromising position with green and 
yellow forceps plucking their pubic hair which rustled like rccds in a 
storm which was raging then. Tomorrow we must go with Jane to old 
mansions and buy all the paraphernalia required for our happy trans- 
actions in the nuptial bed. Why did Mary pull Jeremy's trousers off 
his legs and burn with green fingers? She stroked his beard and began 
fondling his nosebag. It began to get warm in the greenhouse, plants 
wilted and dctumesced. If the rain couldn't get into the trough all the 
plants would die. How will Mother walk when it begins raining?' 

2. 'Because Mary felt ill, she went to the doctors. Did he feel 
reluctant to examine her? She couldn't pass water and fart when 
asked. "You may leave the basin on the table if water is spilling down 
your legs." I thought that we can perhaps catch ourselves in bed. 
Basins frighten ghosts and mice, but spiders walk around chairs and 
breathe softly. Can I hear myself breathe? Only God can produce 
Christ's image on church walls without seeming to characterise. If 
water falls gently on to the spider it will die. Tomorrow is Christ's 
birthday and we must celebrate with balloons and razors. Should we 
allow Christ to die? Perhaps he can save us, perhaps he can obliterate 
us. Fear is always present with me. God is dead. Big tits can make me 
feel happy, and saved. Mary and I are not related and can only marry 
if God permits. Why can't we live by ourselves?' 

3. 'Purgation. Lightning strikes trees but only when it rains hard. 
Water runs along green branches carrying specks of bird-shit. Clouds 
follow the sun which shines only on holidays. Thunder is loud but 


soft in rain. Why can trees blow their leaves towards the houses? Why 
does rain trickle down my trees? I like rain when it splatters against 
my house and face. Should ghosts haunt my house? I would like it if 
God left me alone. Ghosts like butter, mice like ghosts, butter likes 
me. Poetry destroys all images and reincarnation. Why, why can't I 
live without people and Jesus and poetry? If it destroys me it destroys 
everything. Bombs destroy people, God and me. Are bombs created 
by God or are poets Gods, or is love a bomb which destroys rain?' 

4. 'Autumn. He walked through the trees carrying a body which 
bumped gently against the ground, which was hard and frozen. She 
held his hand, softly whispering "Dead !" Can't leaves drift under the 
bodies without breaking? Is Mother dying or has she died without 
screaming "Dead !" whispered Mary. He shook the leaves off Mother 
and began sprinkling dirt over her grave. After death will God see her 
face? Will Mother laugh at God or cry "Dead!"? Should we mourn 
her parting? Leaves tremble and fall swiftly. Time carries her scythe 
tenderly without cutting her throat. Leaves cut my heart, but Jesus 
cuts my mother. Between them their relationship seems brittle and 
lifeless like dead leaves.' 

5. 'Love lost. Sunshine brightens my life. Yesterday, today, tomor- 
row; all my loves have flown towards oblivion. Death approaches 
from lost loves. Is death the answer? Can Christ save lost lovers or do 
angels meet flying shadows under sunlit gardens? Black night frightens 
angels. Dark alleys frighten lovers. Only lovers know love and see 
nothing but sunshine. Perhaps death hides people from the heaven- 
sent sunshine, or love hides from death. When you travel through 
darkness, hold love tightly, for you will need all the strength of your 
love to be unafraid of death. Why should we not love again, though 
we may lose our lives from lost loves? Death cannot change us, or 
destroy us, while God loves lovers.' 

6. 'Shipwrecks are dangerous to people on ships. Waves cause 
shipwrecks and are beautiful. How can beautiful waves destroy 
people without turning ugly? Jesus walks : untroubled footsteps sound 
across vast oceans of beautiful waves. Shipwrecks begin when love 
disappears. Jesus hears no footsteps, only the screams of the dying 
waves which patter his feet. Why do mermaids not hear God? Is 
death inevitable? Do shipwrecks begin when ears are hearing nothing 
but footsteps? Can I hear waves beating on nothing? Only if I make 
footsteps heard. Christmas comes when God is deaf to our screams, 
and waves become destructive and silent like Jesus's feet.' 

7. 'Sabbat. Seven dwarfs stood silently watching. Six leprechauns, 

being present at the funeral, began dancing. Five Jews scrabbled in 
mud for money which the angels took. Three dwarfs raped two 
leprechauns, who said that one was enough.' 

8. 'Hells I view. Black shines brightly under white silk curtains, 
light filters through black windows but fades colours anyway. Win- 
dows shine at people from afar. Darkness surrounds me as I gaze at 
people in the street. Is my body there or am I looking at it through 
dark windows?' 

9. 'Seagulls. Look at the seagulls circling above this place, like 
shadows falling at noon. Wings are made for flying higher and higher 
and swifter and stronger than anything crawling below. How do birds 
know what it is like to be earthbound? Perhaps they envy creatures 
who crawl and swim. If I could fly, like them, at the end of autumn 
where leaves lie brown and decaying, then I would know that God is 
a being who flies.' 

10. 'Snow is gentle and cold. It falls from above us. Death is only 
snow. It falls to cover our lives. But we cannot melt away death like 
sunshine melts snow. Coldness comes, only once the snow has fallen. 
// / can melt my snow will also melt, but because I am never fully warm 
I cannot live. Terror is cold. Fear is cold and only I can depend on 
heat. Love is warm. Ah ! If only we had love always, we could conquer, 
and live forever. The people who love themselves cannot melt their 
snow. Only you can melt my snow, for our love can never fail, for 
however cold it becomes, we shall love each other and therefore melt 
each other's snows and live forever.' 

11. 'Happiness is always transient. Perhaps we should try to be 
happier and better with our friends. Friendship is transient but 
transcience meets often with lasting friendship. Why can't we meet 
other people and make friendships last? Am I ever going to meet my 
friends in honest friendship? Or will we ever see our own friendships 
die through lack of love? Which is the better? I don't like to leave 
friends behind but friendship will come again. Love is permanent 
only when friendship and trust exists. If friendship is transient, trust 
must be the permanent basis of love.' 

12. 'Strings vibrate when they feel varying pressures upon them. 
Sounds echo through empty buildings. Light shines brightly, but only 
enters through open spaces in walls. My room vibrates silently and 
darkly. No light enters my room. It feels no emotion, like a static 
building where strings never vibrate. I cannot live alone, listening to 
silence and seeing nothing but walls and darkness. Why does light not 
enter my room? Must I feel deaf to vibrating strings and see nothing? 


Where am I, where are you? Where are the people who play music 
and vibrate strings? When will I hear and see music? I can't tell. Only 
you can help me see and hear. I only live, hoping that you love me. 
Give me your hand, and take away my darkness and silence.' 

13. 'Summer roses die when winter strangles the ground. Weeds 
flourish when roses die. I lived in a thorn bush until roses began to 
die, then I left my thorn bush and ran towards the sun. I felt it warm 
my body as I had no clothes on. Approaching dusk saw me shiver, but 
I still ran towards the sun, and finally dropped towards the end of life. 
Roses covered my body. Dawn came and warmed the roses and me. 
Then at noon I burned. My body could not feel pain. I stood among 
the flourishing roses. They did not burn. Midnight came. I tried to 
return to my thorn bush but I was cold. If I cannot grow into a rose, 
I must die, and become a weed.' 

14. 'Walls encircle me. My heart has walls which surround my 
blood, beating steadily and relentlessly it pushes through my veins 
because I am so alive. Talk to me please. The walls are thin and 
crumbling. Life is being drained from within my body. Stop the 
current. I must break through the walls which hold my body. Death 
will soon release the aching heart, but I am not afraid. Here is my 
heart, now take a piece and smash down my walls.' 

If you play this game with children, then it's important not to insist 
on leading. Here's a 'story' I improvised with a 'disturbed' nine-year- 
old boy. His words are in italics, and you can see how little I contri- 

'A year ago strangely enough dead people strangled my mother. How 
did they do this? "Help!" cried Thing-a-me-boober, "I went over 
Heaven and Hell, where did you stop?" Hell is the ugliest place / have 
ever seen. Devil George swims through waves of flame to strengthen his 
bones. Mother screamed when she saw George holding a stick called a 
pitchfork. She fainted when my friend hit her over the head with a 
bucket of molten metal. Meanwhile, back in my own Casbah I got very 

A game can stare you in the face for years before you 'see' it. It 
wasn't until I'd left the studio that I thought of asking students to act 
the stories out as they told them. 

I get the actors to work in pairs, with their arms round each 
other, to say 'We' instead of T, and to use the present tense. I dis- 
courage them from putting in adjectives, or saying 'But'. It's normal 
for them to encounter something unpleasant, and to hold it off with 
adjectives by saying 'We . . . met ... a ... big .. . huge . . . terrifying 

. . . angry . . . black . . . monster . . . but . . . we . . . escaped.' Once 
they've mastered the basic technique of the game (which is very easy) 
then I forbid them to escape from the monsters. 'Kill it or be killed,' 
I say, 'or make friends with it, outwit it.' I remind them that there 
isn't really a monster, so what does it matter if they allow themselves 
to be torn apart? If they get eaten or killed I say 'Go on, don't stop the 
game.' Then they can fight their way out of the monster, or continue 
in heaven, or whatever. They can mime sitting astride enormous 
turds and paddle through the intestines. If they get to heaven they can 
find God is missing and take over the place, or arm-wrestle him, or 

The audience can hardly believe that it's possible to improvise 
scenes in this way, and they're delighted to see actors working in such 
sympathy. I used to ask the audience for tides first, and I usually 
combined two titles to make one; the actors would then improvise 
Dracula and the Bald Lighthouse Keeper, or Rin-Tin-Tin and the 
Fall of the Roman Empire. 

Some people avoid getting involved in action. All they'll produce 
is stories like ' We-are-going-to-the-market-where-we-buy-bread-and- 
now-we-walk-to-the-beack-wkere-we-watck-the-seagulls . . .' It's a good 
idea to start such people off inside a womb, or on another planet, or 
being hunted for murder, or some other dramatic situation. 

The game can be intensified by having one partner close his eyes, 
while the other partner stops him from bumping into the furniture. 
In another version both partners close their eyes, while the group 
stand round them and protect them. If the group is in a good state, 
that is to say warm and friendly, then they'll begin to add things to 
the story. If a wind is mentioned the group will spontaneously make 
wind noises, or perhaps flap coats around them to make a draught. If 
the storytellers are in the forest, then bird sounds will be made, or 
rustlings. Soon the group begin to dictate parts of the action, providing 
encounters with animals or monsters. An extraordinary energy is 
released, an almost sinister excitement sweeps over the group, and all 
sorts of sensitivity exercises are discovered. The group will 'fly' the 
story tellers, and bury them in heaps of bodies or be 'spiders' crawling 
all over their skins. 

It's amazing to be one of the 'storytellers' because everything 
becomes so real for you. Once your eyes are shut, and you're involved 
in the story, and people begin to supply even very approximate 
effects, the brain suddenly links it all up, and fills in the gaps. If 
someone touches your face with a wet leaf you hallucinate a whole 


forest, you know what kind of trees are there, the type of animals, and 
so on. 

One extraordinary way to play word-at-a-time games is to ask a 
whole group to tell the story, all speaking together. I don't know how 
to convince you that this is possible, but most groups can succeed at 
it, if you approach them at the right moment. Start with everyone 
pressed together, and say 'Start with "We" and all speak at the same 
time.' I suppose it works because many people say the same words, and 
the minority who go 'wrong' are swamped out by the majority. 



An improviser can study status transactions, and 
advancing, and 'reincorporating', and can learn to free-associate, and 
to generate narrative spontaneously, and yet still find it difficult to 
compose stories. This is really for aesthetic reasons, or conceptual 
reasons. He shouldn't really think of making up stories, but of 
interrupting routines. 

If I say 'Make up a story', then most people are paralysed. If I say 
'describe a routine and then interrupt it', people see no problem. A 
film like The Last Detail is based on the routine of two sailors travel- 
ling across America with a prisoner whom they have to deliver to a 
prison. The routine is interrupted by their decision to give him a good 
time. The story I fantasised earlier about the bear who chased me 
was presumably an interruption of the routine 'Walking through the 
forest'. Red Riding Hood presents an interruption of the routine 
'Taking a basket of goodies to Grandma'. 

Many people think of finding more interesting routines, which 
doesn't solve the problem. It may be interesting to have a vet rectally 
examining an elephant, or to show b-ain surgeons doing a particularly 
delicate operation, but these activities remain routines. If two lava- 
tory attendants break a routine by starting a brain operation, or if a 
window cleaner begins to examine the elephant, then this is likely to 
generate a narrative. Conversely, two brain surgeons working as 
lavatory cleaners immediately sounds like part of a story. If I describe 
mountaineers climbing a mountain, then the routine says that they 
first climb it, and then they climb down, which isn't much of a story. 
A film of a mountain climb isn't necessarily anything more than a 
documentary. If we interrupt the routine of mountain-climbing by 
having them discover a crashed plane, or if we snow them up and 

have them start eating each other, or whatever, then we begin story- 
telling. As a story progresses it begins to establish other routines and 
these in their turn have to be broken. In the story about the bear I 
escaped to an island and began making love to a beautiful girl. This 
can also be considered as a routine that it's necessary to interrupt. 
I interrupted it with the bear, but I could have chosen one of an 
infinity of other ways. I could have found that she was wearing a wig 
to hide her complete baldness, or that I was impotent, or that my 
penis was growing so long that it had made its way to the shore of the 
lake where it was being attacked by the bear. I could have discovered 
that she was my sister — Maupassant set such a story in a brothel. 

It doesn't matter how stupidly you interrupt a routine, you will be 
automatically creating a narrative, and people will listen. The scene 
in The Tempest where Caliban hears the clown coming works marvel- 
lously, but it's ludicrous. The first routine suggests that Caliban will 
defend himself, or leave. He crawls under a. sheet. When the clown 
enters he sees this monster hiding under the sheet. If we treat this as a 
routine, then it's obvious that the clown runs away. What he does is 
incredible — the very last thing anyone would do is to crawl under the 
sheet beside the monster. It's actually the best thing to do, since it ' 
spectacularly breaks the routine. 

We could introduce this concept by getting each actor in a scene to 
prearrange something that'll surprise his partner. In a scene where a 
couple are about to go to bed, maybe the husband suddenly turns into 
a boot fetishist, or maybe the wife will suddenly start to laugh 
hysterically, or find she's growing feathers. If you set out to do some- 
thing in a scene that your partner can't anticipate, you automatically 
generate a narrative. 

Sometimes stories themselves become so predictable that they be- 
come routines. Nowadays if your princess kisses the frog, it's probably 
ter if she becomes a frog herself, or if the frog she kissed just be- 
is six feet higher. It's no good the knight killing the dragon and 
: the virgin any more. Killing the virgin and deflowering 
dragon is more likely to hold the audience's attention. 
One way that storytellers wreck their talent is by cancelling. A 
at of mine wrote a scene in which a girl friend messed up her 
ex-boy friend's apartment in an act of revenge. He arrived and they 
had a row. Once the row was over and she had left, the playwright had 
of 'failure', or having done nothing— which was true. 
When I told the writer to consider the row as a routine which needed 
to be broken, she wrote a scene in which at the height of the row the 


girl suddenly injected the ex-boy friend with a syringe, and locked 
herself in the bathroom. One moment there was a row going on, and 
the next the man was suddenly terrified of what she might have done 
to him. 

Many students dry up at the moment they realise that the routine 
they're describing is nearing its completion. They absolutely under- 
stand that a routine needs to be broken, or they wouldn't feel so 
unimaginative. Their problem is that they haven't realised what's 
wrong consciously. Once they understand the concept of 'interrupting 
routines', then they aren't stuck for ideas any more. 

Another way that improvisers screw themselves up is by moving 
the action elsewhere. An improvisation starts with a girl asking a boy 
for the time. He says it's four o'clock. She says that the others are 
late, and they begin talking about these imaginary others, and what 
happened last time, and the scene fizzles out. I tell them that they got 
diverted into a discussion of events that happened another time, and 
that there was nothing for the audience to see. I start them again 
with the opening dialogue. She asks what time it is. He says, 'Four 
o'clock.' I shout out: 'Say it's time to begin.' 'It's time to begin,' he 
says. 'Must we?' she asks. He says, 'Well you know how strict he is', 
and again they begin talking about something outside the scene. I 
tell them I don't care what they do so long as the action remains 
onstage. 'Get a bucket,' I say, and the actor mimes carrying on a 
bucket. 'Is it really necessary?' implores the actress. 'Yes,' he replies, 
'open your mouth, I'll put the funnel in.' 'I've put on twenty pounds 
in the last week,' she complains. 'He likes them fat,' he says, pouring 
the 'contents' of the 'bucket' into the 'funnel' while she pretends to 
be swelling up. The scene now seems inspired, and the audience are 
fascinated. (Speke found this scene in reality : a tribe where the king's 
wives were forcibly fed, and sprawled about like great seals.) 

One of the first games I used at the studio involved getting Actor A 
to order Actor B about: 'Sit down. Stand up. Go to the wall. Yawn. 
Say "I'm tired." Look around. Walk to the door . . .' and so on. We 
weren't trying to create narratives; we only wanted the actors to get 
used to obeying each other, and to ordering each other around. This 
game (if you can call it a game) exposed them to an 'audience' without 
their having to think about success or failure. 

"Now that I'm teaching 'playwriting' in a Canadian university, I've 
adapted this early game into a way of teaching narrative skills. Two 
students obey a third who tells them what to say and do. The third 
student, the 'playwright', will be under a certain amount of stress, 

but if he blocks I tell him to say 'prompt', and then someone tells him 
what to say next. We don't play the game in order to get 'good stories', 
although 'good stories' may emerge; the important thing is to investi- 
gate exactly why the playwright 'blocks'. 

A playwright who gets his two students to wash up soon stops and 
says 'I can't think of anything.' If I say 'Break the routine' he has one 
student break a plate on purpose. He now has a quarrel which he can 
develop for a while, but which is also a routine. They decide to put the 
plate together, and find a piece is missing. They investigate and find a 
hole in the floor. They peer through the hole and start talking about 
what they see underneath. The playwright then gets stuck again. 
What he's done is to move the action offstage, so I tell him he's been 
deflected, and that he's to get the action onstage again. He tells them to 
tear up the floorboards, and the 'block' dissolves. 

An audience will remain interested if the story is advancing in some 
sort of organised manner, but they want to see routines interrupted, 
and the action continuing between the actors. When a Greek messenger 
comes in with some ghastly story about events that have happened 
somewhere else, the important thing is the effect the revelation pro- 
duces on the other characters. Otherwise it stops being theatre, and 
becomes 'literature'. 

A 'playwright' begins a story by saying: 'Dennis, sit on the chair, 
and look ill. Betty, say "Are you feeling well?". Dennis, say "No, 
could you get me a glass of water." Betty, get Dennis a glass of water. 
Drink it, Dennis. Betty, say "How do you feel?". Dennis, say "Much 
better now" . . .' 

At this point the 'playwright' becomes confused, so I stop him and 
lain that he's cancelled everything out. He introduces the idea of 
-ess, and then he removes it. I take the story back to when Dennis 
drinks the glass of water. 'Dennis, find that the water goes right through 
you, and is splashing on the floor under the chair. Betty, get him 
another glass of water. Dennis, examine yourself to try to work out 
at happened. Betty, give him the water, and put the glass under 
chair to catch it when it runs through again. Dennis, say "Can 
1 help me?". Betty, say "You'll have to take your clothes off, 
Dennis, mime undressing . . .' And so on. The level of inven- 
tion is no higher, but the story is no longer being cancelled, and it holds 
the attention. 

There's nothing very profound about such stories, and they don't 
require much imagination, but people are very happy to watch them. 
The rules are: (1) interrupt a routine; (2) keep the action onstage — 


don't get diverted on to an action that has happened elsewhere, or at 
some other time; (3) don't cancel the story. 

I began this essay by saying that an improviser 
shouldn't be concerned with content, because the content arrives 
automatically. This is true, and also not true. The best improvisers do, 
at some level, know what their work is about. They may have trouble 
expressing it to you, but they do understand the implications of what 
they are doing; and so do the audience. 

I think of an improvisation we did years ago : Anthony Trent played 
being a prisoner in a cell. Lucy Fleming arrived, I don't remember 
how, and he endowed her with invisibility. At first he was terrified, 
but she calmed him down, and said she had come to rescue him. She 
led him out of the prison and as he stepped free he fell dead. It had the 
same kind of effect as Ambrose Bierce's story Incident at Owl Creek 

I remember Richardson Morgan playing a scene in which I said he 
I was to be fired, and in which he said he was failing at his work because 
he had cancer. I think Ben Benison was the boss and he treated Ric 
with amazing harshness. It was about the cruellest scene I've ever seen 
and the audience were hysterical with laughter. I've never heard 
people laugh more. The actors seemed to be dragging all the audience's 
greatest fears into the open, laying out all their insecurities, and the 
anxiety was releasing itself in waves of roaring, tearing laughter, and 
the actors absolutely knew what they were doing, and just how slowly 
to turn the screw. 

LYou have to trick students into believing that content isn't important 
d that it looks after itself, or they never get anywhere. It's the same 
kind of trick you use when you tell them that they are not their imagin- 
ations, that their imaginations have notlting to do with them, and 
* that they're in no way responsible for what their 'mind' gives them. 
In the end they learn how to abandon control while at the same time 
they exercise control. They begin to understand that everything is just 
a shell. You have to misdirect people to absolve them of responsibility. 
Then, much later, they become strong enough to resume the respons- 
ibility themselves. By that time they have a more truthful concept of 
what they are. 

Masks and Trance 


George De vine 

George Devine gave a Mask class to the Royal Court 
writers' group in 1958. He arrived with a box full of dusty Masks that 
had last been used some years before at the Old Vic Theatre School. 
I didn't like the look of them : they reminded me of surgical pros- 
theses, and I didn't like what he was saying either. Already I was 
feeling threatened. George talked to us for about forty minutes, and 
then gave us a demonstration. He retired to the far end of the long, 
shadowy room, put a Mask on, looked in a mirror, and turned to face 
us— or rather 'it', 'the Mask', turned to face us. We saw a 'toad-god' 
who laughed and laughed as if we were funny and despicable. I don't 
know how long the 'scene' lasted, it was timeless. Then George 
removed the Mask and suggested that we try. 

Next day he was despondent. He thought the class had been a 
failure and that this had been his fault. He said that none of the Masks 
had been 'inhabited', by which he meant that none of us had been 
possessed by the Masks. I tried to explain how amazed we'd been, but 
he insisted that the class had been a poor one, and that I was wrong to 
be so enthusiastic. 

William Gaskill borrowed the Masks, and began to give Mask classes 
along the lines laid down by George. He collected some old clothes, 
and some props, and developed the theory that the actor should shock 
himself with the Mask's reflection. The time at the mirror was to be 
kept short, and the student was to be pushed into acting on whatever 
impulse came to him. George's ideas related to Oriental theatre 
(Noguchi had designed his King Lear) but we had seen the toad-god, 
and thought more in terms of voodoo than the Noh Theatre. Gaskill 
persuaded me to give Mask classes as well : 'It shouldn't all be left to 
me,' he said, and we both gave classes to groups who visited the theatre. 

It's true that an actor can wear a Mask casually, and just pretend to 
be another person, but Gaskill and myself were absolutely clear that 
we were trying to induce trance states. The reason why one auto- 
matically talks and writes of Masks with a capital 'M' is that one 
really feels that the genuine Mask actor is inhabited by a spirit. Non- 


sense perhaps, but that's what the experience is like, and has always 
been like. To understand the Mask it's also necessary to understand 
the nature of trance itself. 

One day Devine invited me to lunch, which he never did unless he 
wanted to discuss something. He was embarrassed (he was actually a 
shy man), and finally when we were almost through coffee and the 
restaurant was practically empty, he said that he thought Bill and I had 
misunderstood the nature of the Mask. At this time George was 
giving comedy classes at the Studio, so I suggested a swop: I would 
give his comedy classes, and he would give my Mask classes. 

George allowed his students to work in a very casual way. Bill and I 
had tried to condition a response to the wearing of a Mask by insisting 
that whenever one was on the face, the actor should attempt to enter 
the 'Mask state'. This led to Masks being handled as if sacred. George 
shocked me by allowing actors to talk as themselves while actually 
wearing the Masks. They'd choose clothes or wander about with the 
Masks on without any attempt to be in character. I think George was 
overreacting to the way we'd been teaching, because even in per- 
formance these Masks often spoke with the wearer's voice, although 
George had explained that they'd need speech lessons before they 
could speak 'as the Masks'. Eventually, George said that the students 
who had worked first with William Gaskill and myself were usually 
the better ones, so that our method must have something to recom- 
mend it. I think this was because we used to hurl the students into 
the work, whereas George was much gentler. He was very good at 
explaining exactly when a Mask was 'inhabited', but it was really up 
to the actors. Many of his students played safe, and kept to their 
preferred areas acting with Masks on, rather than being possessed. 
George's attitude was really very different from mine, and possibly 
Gaskill's; George was primarily interested in developing characters 
that could be used without the Mask when the actor was cast in plays. 
I saw the Masks as astounding performers, as offering a new form of 
theatre, and I didn't care what Mask creatures arrived, so long as they 
were possessed. The Masks we wer: using covered the top half of 
the face, leaving the mouth and lower half of the cheeks exposed. 
George had learnt the technique from Michel Saint-Denis m the 
1930s, and Michel had been taught by Jacques Copeau (his uncle). 
These half masks are usually called 'comic masks' but George called 
them 'Character Masks'. He thought it important to hand on the 
tradition unchanged, and he was shocked when he found that I was 
mixing Character Masks with Tragic Masks (Tragic Masks work by a 

quite different technique— see page 184). My students showed him one 
of the mixed scenes they had prepared with me, and they reported 
him as saying that it did work, but that he still didn't like it! When I 
visited him during his last illness, almost the last thing he said to me 
was 'I still don't think that Mask work was right.' 

George cited Chaplin's Tramp as a Mask, since the character had 
come from the clothes and the make-up. Here's Chaplin's own ac- 
count (from his autobiography). 

'On the way to the wardrobe I thought I would dress in baggy 
pants, big shoes, and a cane and a derby hat. I wanted everything to 
be a contradiction; the pants baggy, the coat tight, the hat small and 
the shoes large. I was undecided whether to look young or old, but 
remembering Sennett had expected me to be a much older man, I 
added a small moustache which, I reasoned, would add age without 
hiding my expression .... 

'. . . I had no idea of the character. But the moment I was dressed, 
the clothes and make-up made me feel the kind of person he was. I 
began to know him, and by the time I walked on the stage he was fully 
born. When I confronted Sennett I assumed the character and strutted 
about, swinging my cane and parading before him. Gags and comedy 
ideas went racing through my mind .... 

'. . . My character was different and unfamiliar to the Americans. 
But with the clothes on I felt he was a reality, a living person. In fact 
he ignited all sorts of crazy ideas that I would never have dreamt of 
until I was dressed and made-up as the Tramp.' 

Elsewhere Chaplin has said, T realised I would have to spend the 
rest of my life finding out about the creature. For me he was fixed, 
complete, the moment I looked in the mirror and saw him for the 
first time, yet even now I don't know all the things that are to be 
known about him.' 1 (Isabel Quigly, Charlie Chaplin— Early Comedies, 
Studio Vista, 1968.) 



At first I thought that Mask work was completely 
unlike Stanislavsky's concept of actor training, but this isn't true. 
Here's Stanislavsky describing the Mask state in Building a Character. 
Kostya, a drama student, has been told to put on a character make-up, 
but nothing satisfies him. He creams his face to remove the grease- 
paint and then, unexpectedly . . . 


'All the other colours blurred It was difficult to distinguish 

where my nose was, or my eyes, or my lips. I smeared some of the 
same cream on my beard and moustache and then finally all over my 
wig. Some of the hair clotted into lumps .... and then, almost as if I 
were in some delirium, I trembled, my heart pounded, I did away 
with my eyebrows, powdered myself at random, smeared the back of 
my hands with a greenish colour and the palms with light pink. I did 
all this with a quick, sure touch, for this time I knew who I was rep- 
resenting, and what kind of fellow he was !' 

He then paced the room feeling 'how all the parts of my body, 
features, facial lines, fell into their proper places and established 
themselves. ... I glanced in the mirror and did not recognise myself. 
Since I had looked into it the last time a fresh transformation had 

taken place in me. "It is he, it is he!" I exclaimed ' 

He presents himself to the director (Tortsov), introducing himself 
as 'the critic'. He's surprised to find his body doing things by itself, 
things he hadn't intended. 

'Quite unexpectedly my twisted leg came out in advance of me and 
threw my body more to the right. I removed my top hat with careful 
exaggeration and executed a polite bow. . . .' 

He then played a scene with the director, having no difficulty in 
sustaining this weird character he had become, and knowing always 
exactly what to say. Later Kostya reflects: 'Can I really say that this 
creature is not part of me? I derived him from my own nature. I 
divided myself, as it were, into two personalities. One continued as an 
actor, the other as an observer.' 

At the time when Copeau was working with Masks in France, 
Stanislavsky's favourite pupil Vakhtangov was working with them in 
Russia. Nikolai Gorchakov has left an account of those rehearsals. 
Vakhtangov set up a circus in which the Masks were to be auditioned 
as clowns. They were to do things that would make the spectators 
'. . . applaud wildly, rush on the stage and hug and kiss you! Or at 
least roll on the floor with laughter. Go ahead, start! . . .' 

Vakhtangov threw an incredible number of instructions to the 
Masks until they were lost and confused. Someone played circus 
music and they had no choice but to perform. They tried imaginary 
gymnastics, and ice-skated, and pretended to juggle, and finally 
succeeded in getting warm applause from the onlookers. 'Do you really 
think you've hit on the "grain" of the Masks merely by doing a few 
exercises in front of the audience?' said Vakhtangov. 'You haven't even 
started to act as Masks ! . . . You must vie with one another in capti- 

vating the audience by every possible means— talk, act, dance, sing, do 
acrobatics, do anything. Understand?' 

Things got worse until finally Vakhtangov left, the Masks contin- 
uing without him. Suddenly two of them became genuine Masks in 
the characters of Tartaglia and Pantalone. Tartaglia was eating a cake, 
and Pantalone was starving. Tartaglia spoke with a stutter (which was 
unexpected) and said that Pantalone would have to earn it, but he 
'graciously allowed Pantalone to eat the crumbs remaining on his 
palm each time he swallowed a bit. This made Pantalone very happy, 
and it was fun watching him pick up these crumbs while Tartaglia 
lectured him on the necessity of work. . . . 

'The episode was fairly long, but we were so enchanted we did not 
notice it. We were not much interested in their chatter, but were 
fascinated by their naive seriousness, the kind one sees only in two 
children when one is sucking a toffee and the other cannot tear his 
eyes away from this sweet process, looking enviously at the happy 
owner. . . . 

'Tartaglia was so carried away that he began to tease Pantalone, 
passing the cake under his nose every time he nipped a bit off. Sud- 
denly, Pantalone opened wide his mouth and snapped up about three- 
quarters of what remained. Tartaglia burst into tears while Pantalone, 
his mouth full, gestured that it served him right— he should not have 
teased him.' 

Vakhtangov had been watching from a doorway. He immediately 
set up another scene with the same characters. Pantalone was to be a 
dentist, and Tartaglia his patient. Tartaglia panicked, stepped out of 
character and said he didn't want to do it. 

' "And what do the dentists say to that?" Vakhtangov turned 
gravely to his partners. 

' "There have been many cases in history of medicine of patients 
refusing to be treated," Kudryavtsev replies seriously, without for- 
getting that he was Pantalone, the learned secretary of King Altoum's 
court. "Such refusal is a sure sign of illness. In this particular case I 
presume we'll have to extract the aching teeth not only through the 
mouth, but also through other apertures, ears and nostrils includ- 
ed " ' 

Afterwards Vakhtangov commented that they had at first tried to 
think up' what to do. 'I don't deny the importance of thinking, 
inventing or planning, but if you have to improvise on the spot (and 
that's exactly what we have to do), you must act and not think. It's 
action we must have — wise, foolish or naive, simple or complicated, 


but action: (Nikolai Gorchakov, The Vakhtangov School of Stage 
Art, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow.) 

Vakhtangov forced his students to act spontaneously. This produces 
a light trance state in which the actors feel as if something else is 
controlling them. They 'know' what to do, whereas normally they 
'choose' what to do. The state is regressive, but they experience no 

3 Destroying the Mask 

Masks seem exotic when you first learn about them, 
but to my mind Mask acting is no stranger than any other kind: no 
more weird than the fact that an actor can blush when his character is 
embarrassed, or turn white with fear, or that a cold will stop for the 
duration of the performance, and then start streaming again as soon as 
the curtain falls. 'What's Hecuba to him?' asks Hamlet, and the mystery 
remains. Actors can be possessed by the character they play just as 
they can be possessed by Masks. Many actors have been unable to 
really 'find' a character until they put on the make-up, or until they 
try on the wig, or the costume. We find the Mask strange because we 
don't understand how irrational our responses to the face are anyway, 
and we don't realise that much of our lives is spent in some form of 
trance, i.e. absorbed. What we assume to be 'normal consciousness' is 
comparatively rare, it's like the light in the refrigerator : when you look 
in, there you are ON but what's happening when you don't look in? 

It's difficult to understand the power of the Mask if you've only 
seen it in illustrations, or in museums. The Mask in the showcase may 
have been intended as an ornament on the top of a vibrating, swishing 
haystack. Exhibited without its costume, and without a film, or even 
photograph, of the Mask in use, we respond to it only as an aesthetic 
object. Many Masks are beautiful or striking, but that's not the point. 
A Mask is a device for driving the personality out of the body and 
allowing a spirit to take possession of it. A very beautiful Mask may 
be completely dead, while a piece of old sacking with a mouth and 
eye-holes torn in it may have tremendous vitality. 

In its original culture nothing had more power than the Mask. It 
was used as an oracle, a judge, an arbitrator. Some were so sacred that 
any outsider who caught a glimpse of them was executed. They cured 
diseases, they made women sterile. Some tribes were so scared of 
their power that they carved the eye-holes so that the wearers could 
see only the ground. Some Masks were led on chains to keep them 





attacking the onlookers. One African Mask had a staff, the touch 
of which was believed to cause leprosy. In some cultures dead people 
are reincarnated as Masks— the back of the skull is sliced off, a stick 
rammed in from ear to ear, and someone dances, gripping the stick with 
his teeth. It's difficult to imagine the intensity of that experience. 

Masks are surrounded by rituals that reinforce their power. A 
Tibetan Mask was taken out of its shrine once a year and set up over- 
night in a locked chapel. Two novice monks sat all night chanting 
prayers to prevent the spirit of the Mask from breaking loose. For 
miles around the villagers barred their doors at sunset and no one 
ventured out. Next day the Mask was lowered over the head of the 
dancer who was to incarnate the spirit at the centre of a great cere- 
mony. What must it feel like to be that dancer, when the terrifying face 
becomes his own? 
We don't know much about Masks in this culture, partly because 
church sees the Mask as pagan, and tries to suppress it wherever 
it has the power (the Vatican has a museum full of Masks confiscated 
from the 'natives'), but also because this culture is usually hostile to 
trance states. We distrust spontaneity, and try to replace it by reason: 
e Mask was driven out of theatre in the same way that improvisation 
as driven out of music. Shakers have stopped shaking. Quakers don't 
quake any more. Hypnotised people used to stagger about, and trem- 
ble. Victorian mediums used to rampage about the room. Education 
itself might be seen as primarily an anti-trance activity. 2 

The church struggled against the Mask for centuries, but what can't 
be done by force is eventually done by the all-pervading influence of 
Western education. The US Army burned the voodoo temples in 
Haiti and the priests were sentenced to hard labour with little effect, 
but voodoo is now being suppressed in a more subtle way. The 
ceremonies are faked for tourists. The genuine ceremonies now last 
for a much shorter time. 

I see the Mask as something that is continually flaring up in this 
culture, only to be almost immediately snuffed out. No sooner have I 
established a tradition of Mask work somewhere than the students 
start getting taught the 'correct' movements, just as they learn a 
phoney 'Commedia dell' Arte' technique. The manipulated Mask is 
hardly worth having, and is easy to drive out of the theatre. The Mask 
begins as a sacred object, and then becomes secular and is used in 
ivals and in the theatre. Finally it is remembered only in the feeble 
imitations of Masks sold in the tourist shops. The Mask dies when it 
is entirely subjected to the will of the performer. 




We have instinctive responses to faces. Parental feel- 
ings seem to be triggered by flat faces and big foreheads. We try and 
be rational and assert that 'people can't help their appearance', yet 
we feel we know all about Snow White and the Witch, or Laurel and 
Hardy, just by the look of them. The truth is that we learn to hold 
characteristic expressions as a way of maintaining our personalities, 
and we're far more influenced by faces than we realise. When I was a 
child there were faces in books that were so terrible that I had to jam 
the books tight into the bookcase for fear they would somehow leak 
out into the house. Adults lose this vision in which the face is the 
person, but after their first Mask class students are amazed by passers- 
by in the street— suddenly they see 'evil' people, and 'innocent' 
people, and people holding their faces in Masks of pain, or grief, or 
pride, or whatever. Our faces get 'fixed' with age as the muscles 
shorten, but even in very young people you can see that a decision has 
been taken to appear tough, or stupid, or defiant. (Why should anyone 
wish to look stupid? Because then your teachers expect less of you.) 
Sometimes in acting class a student will break out of his habitual facial 
expression and you won't know who he is until you look at his clothes. 
I've seen this transformation several times, and each time the student 
is flooded with great joy and exhilaration. 3 

Even if you just alter the face with make-up, astounding effects can 
be produced. A journalist called Bill Richardson told me that he'd 
been asked to take part in a circus matinee as one of the clowns. It was 
when he was a cub reporter, and his editor had thought it might make 
an interesting story. Once the make-up was on he became 'possessed' 
and found himself able to tumble about, catch his feet in buckets, and 
so on, as if he'd been a clown in another incarnation. He stayed with 
the circus for some weeks, but he never got the same feeling without 
the make-up. 

Another journalist, John Howard Griffin, disguised himself as a 
black man. He wrote: 

'The transformation was total and shocking. I had expected to see 
myself disguised, but this was something else. I was imprisoned in 
the flesh of an utter stranger, an unsympathetic one with whom I felt 
no kinship. All traces of the John Griffin I had been were wiped from 
existence. I looked in the mirror and saw reflected nothing of the 

John Griffin's past. No, the reflections led back to Africa, back 
to the shanty and the ghetto, back to the fruitless struggles against the 
mark of blackness. Suddenly, almost with no mental preparation, no 
advance hint, it became clear and it permeated my whole being. My 
inclination was to fight against it. I had gone too far. . . . The com- 
pleteness of the transformation appalled me. It was unlike anything 
I had imagined. I became two men, the observing one and the one 
who panicked, who felt negroid even into the depths of his entrails.' 
(John Howard Griffin, Black Like Me, Panther, 1969.) 

It's not surprising then to find that Masks produce changes in the 
personality, or that the first sight of oneself wearing a Mask and 
reflected in a mirror should be so disturbing. A bad Mask will produce 
little effect, but a good Mask will give you the feeling that you know 
about the creature in the mirror. You feel that the Mask is about 
take over. It is at this moment of crisis that the Mask teacher will 
je you to continue. In most social situations you are expected to 
maintain a consistent personality. In a Mask class you are encouraged 
to 'let go', and allow yourself to become possessed. 



Many actors report 'split' states of consciousness, or 
amnesias; they speak of their body acting automatically, or as being 
habited by the character they are playing. 

Fanny Kemble: 'The curious part of acting, to me, is the sort of 
_ble process which the mind carries on at once, the combined 
operation of one's faculties, so to speak, in diametrically opposite 
directions; for instance, in that very last scene of Mrs Beverley, while 
I was half dead with crying in the midst of real grief, created by an 
entirely unreal cause, I perceived that my tears were falling like rain 
all over my silk dress, and spoiling it; and I calculated and measured 
most accurately the space that my father would require to fall in, and 
moved myself and my train accordingly in the midst of the anguish I 
was to feign, and absolutely did endure.' (William Archer, Masks and 
Faces, 18S8.) 

Sybil Thorndike : 'When you're an actor you cease to be male and 
female, you're a person, and you're a person with all the other persons 
inside you.' {Great Acting, BBC Publications, 1967.) 

Edith Evans: '. . . I seem to have an awful lot of people inside me. 
Do you know what I mean? If I understand them I feel terribly like 


them when I'm doing them by thinking you turn into the person, 

if you think strongly enough. It's quite odd sometimes, you know. 
You are it, for quite a bit, and then you're not. . . .' (Great Acting.) 

In another kind of culture I think it's clear that such actors could 
easily talk of being 'possessed' by the character. It's true that some 
actors will maintain that they always remain 'themselves' when they're 
acting, but how do they know? Improviseis who maintain that they're 
in a normal state of consciousness when they improvise often have 
unsuspected gaps in their memories which only emerge when you 
question them closely. 

It's the same with Mask actors. I remember Roddy Maude-Roxby 
in a Mask that got angry during a show at Expo 67. He, or 'it', started 
throwing chairs about, so I walked on stage to stop the scene. 'S' 
goin' to be all right', said the Mask, waving me aside. Afterwards 
Roddy remembered the chairs, but not that I'd entered the scene and 
tried to stop him. If he'd been in a deeper trance he'd have forgotten 
everything. The same kind of amnesias can be detected in any spon- 
taneous work. An improviser writes : '. . . If a scene goes badly I 
remember it. If it goes well I forget very quickly.' Orgasms are the 

Normally we only know of our trance states by the time jumps. 
When an improviser feels that two hours have passed in twenty 
minutes, we're entitled to ask where was he for the missing hour and 
forty minutes. 

Many people think that to be awake is the same as to be conscious, 
but they can be deeply hypnotised while believing that they are in 
'everyday consciousness'. A student assured me that he'd spent two 
hours on stage fooling a hypnotist, which is unlikely. Then he said 
that funnily enough he'd been singled out to tell the audience that 
he'd really just been pretending, and that he. hadn't minded when 
they laughed, because it did — by coincidence — happen to be true ! 

I knew a hypnotist's assistant who used to be left in store windows 
as an advert for the show. 

'Of course he doesn't really hypnotise me,' he said. 


'No, he used to push needles through me and it hurt, so finally I 
told him and now he doesn't push them thrbugh me any more.' 
'But why do you agree to sit motionless in shop windows all day?' 
'Well, I like him.' 

I can't imagine anyone in a normal state of consciousness sitting 
motionless in shop windows day after day and doing the evening 


How much then are we to trust what anyone tells us about their 
state of mind? 

We don't think of ourselves as moving in and out of trance because 
we're trained not to. It's impossible to be 'in control' all the time, but 
we convince ourselves that we are. Other people help to stop us 
drifting. They will laugh if we don't seem immediately in possession 
of ourselves, and we'll laugh too in acknowledgement of our inap- 
propriate behaviour. 

In 'normal consciousness' I am aware of myself as 'thinking verb- 
ally'. In sports which leave no time for verbalisation, trance states are 
common. If you think: 'The ball's coming at that angle but it's 
spinning so that I'll anticipate the direction of the bounce by . . .' you 
miss ! You don't know you're in a trance state because whenever you 
check up, there you are, playing table tennis, but you may have been 
in just as deep a trance as the bobsleigh rider who didn't know he'd 
lost a thumb until he shook hands. 

Most people only recognise 'trance' when the subject looks con- 
fused — out of touch with the reality around him. We even think of 
hypnosis as 'sleep'. In many trance states people are more in touch, 
more observant. I remember an experiment in which deep trance 
subjects were first asked how many objects there had been in the 
waiting-room. When they were put into trance and asked again, it was 
found that they had actually observed more than ten times the number 
of objects than they consciously remembered. Zen Masters, and 
sorcerers, are notoriously difficult to creep up on (Castaneda's Don 
Juan, for example). In Mask work people report that perceptions are 
ore intense, and that although they see differently, they see and sense 

I see the 'personality' as a public-relations department for the real 
*d, which remains unknown. My personality always seems to be 
functioning, at some level, in terms of what other people think. If I 
am alone in a room and someone knocks on the door, then I 'come 
back to myself'. I do this in order to check up that my social image is 
presentable: are my flies done up? Is my social face properly as- 
sembled? If someone enters, and I decide that I don't have to guard 
myself, then I can get 'lost in the conversation'. Normal consciousness 
is related to transactions, real or imagined, with other people. That's 
how I experience it, and I note widespread reports of people in 
Nation, or totally rejected by other people, who experience 'person- 
ty disintegration'. 

When you're worried about what other people might think, the 


personality is always present. In life-or-death situations something 
else takes over. A friend scalded himself and his mind split immediately 
into two parts, one of which was a child screaming with pain, while 
the other was cold and detached and told him exactly what to do (he 
was alone at the time). If a cobra dropped out of the air vent into the 
middle of an acting class, the students might find themselves on the 
piano, or outside the door, with no memory of how they got there. 
In extremity the body takes over for us, pushing the personality aside 
as an unnecessary encumbrance. 



How do we enter trance states? I would prefer to ask 
'How do we stay out of them?' In the middle of a dark night I wake up, 
how do I know I'm awake? I test for consciousness by moving a muscle. 
If I block this impulse to move I feel a tremendous anxiety. The 
control I exercise over the musculature reassures me that 'I'm me'. 
By tensing muscles, by shifting position, by scratching, sighing, 
yawning, blinking, and so on, we maintain 'normal consciousness'. 
Entranced subjects will sit quite motionless for hours. An audience 
'held' by a theatrical performance suddenly find a need to move, to 
shift position, to cough, as the spell breaks. 

If you lie down and make your body relax, going through it from 
feet to head, and loosening any points of tension that you find, then 
you easily float away into fantasy. The substance and shape of your 
body seem to change. You feel as if the air is breathing you, rather 
than you breathing the air, and the rhythm is slow and smooth like a 
great tide. It's very easy to lose yourself, but if you feel the presence of 
a hostile person in the room you break this trance, seizing hold of the 
musculature, and becoming 'yourself' once more. 

Meditators use stillness as a means of inducing trance. So do 
present-day hypnotists. The subject doesn't have to be told to be still, 
he knows intuitively not to assert control of his body by picking his 
nose or tapping his feet. 

When you are 'absorbed' you no longer control the musculature. 
You can drive for miles, or play a movement from a sonata while your 
personality pays no attention at all. Ncr is your performance neces- 
sarily worse. When a hypnotist takes over the function normally 
exercised by the personality, there's no need to leave the trance. Mask 
teachers, priests in possession cults, and hypnotists all play high status 


in voice and movement. A high-status person whom you accept as 
dominant can easily propel you into unusual states of being. You're 
likely to respond to his suggestions, and see, like Polonius, the cloud 
looking like a whale. If the Queen knocked unexpectedly on your door 
and said T wonder if I might use your lavatory?' then you'd probably 
be in a very odd state indeed. 

Eysenck tells the seemingly improbable story of a hypnotist who 
worked for a total of three hundred hours on one subject with no 
apparent result. When the frustrated hypnotist finally snarled, 'Go 
to sleep, you ****•!' the subject went straight into deep trance. I 
would interpret such an incident as the subject yielding to the status 
attack of the hypnotist. 

I once asked a girl to close her eyes while I put a coin under one of 
three cups. Secredy I put a coin under each cup. When I asked her to 
guess which cup the coin was under, she was, of course, correct. After 
she'd made a correct choice about six times, she was convinced I was 
somehow controlling her thoughts, and moved into a rather dis- 
associated state, so I explained, and she 'snapped out of it'. I would 
suggest this as a possible means of inducing hypnosis. Alan Mitchell 
describes a technique of 'confusion' used by the American hypnotist, 
Erickson. He writes : 

'Erickson made a number of conflicting suggestions to a patient: 
"Lift your left arm, now your right. Up with the left, down with the 
right. Swing the left arm out and the left arm follows." Eventually 
the subject became so confused by these directions, which were woolly 
and conflicting, that he was glad to clutch at any straw, so long as it 
was given to him firmly enough and in a loud voice. Then, while he was 
so confused, if he were told : "Go to sleep", apparently he would drop 
off immediately into a deep sleep.' (Harley Street Hypnotist, Harrap, 

Again we see that the subject is made to feel that his body is out of 
control, and becomes subject to a high-status person. Some hypnotists 
sit you down, ask you to stare upwards into their eyes and suggest 
that your eyelids are wanting to close — which works because looking 
upwards is tiring, and because staring up into a high-status person's 
eyes makes you feel inferior. Another method involves getting you to 
hold your arm out sideways while suggesting that it's getting heavier. 
If you think the hypnotist is responsible for the heaviness rather than 
gravity, then you are likely to accept his control. Hypnotists don't, as 
sometimes claimed, ask you to put your hands together and then tell 
you that you can't part them, but they do ask you to link them in such 


a way that it's awkward to part them. If you believe the hypnotist 
responsible for such awkwardness, then you may abandon the attempt 
to separate them. If you squeeze your index finger hard, and then wait, 
you'll feel it starting to swell— I imagine this is an illusion caused by 
the weakening of the muscles of the compressing hand. This too can 
be a way of inducing trance so long as the subject doesn't realise that 
the 'swelling' would be experienced anyway, even without the 
hypnotist's suggestion. 4 

Once you understand that you're no longer held responsible for 
your actions, then there's no need to maintain a 'personality'. Student 
improvisers asked to pretend to be hypnotised, show a sudden im- 
provement. Students asked to pretend to be hypnotists show no such 

Many ways of entering trance involve interfering with verbalisation. 
Repetitive singing or chanting are effective, or holding the mind on to 
single words; such techniques are often thought of as 'Oriental', but 
they're universal. 5 

One dramatic way of entering trance is by 'trumping'. This was 
used in a West Indian play at the Royal Court, with the unwanted 
result that actors kept going into real trance, and not just acting it. It 
works partly by the 'crowd effect', everyone repeating the same action 
and sound, but also by over-oxygenating the blood. It looks like a 
'forward-moving two-step stomp'. 

'With the step forward the body is bent forwards from the waist 
so sharply as to seem propelled by force. At the same time the breath 
exhaled, or inhaled, with great effort and sound. The forcefulness of 
the action gives justification to the term "labouring" . . . When the 
spirit possession does take place ... an individual's legs may seem 
riveted to the ground ... or he may be thrown to the ground.' 
(S. E. Simpson, Religious Cults of Caribbean: Trinidad, Jamaica and 
Haiti, Institute of Caribbean Studies, University of Puerto Rico, 1970.) 

Crowds are trance-inducing because the anonymity imposed by the 
crowd absolves you of the need to maintain your identity. 



The type of trance I am concerned with in this essay 
is the 'controlled trance', in which permission to remain 'entranced' 
is given by other people, either by an individual or a group. Such 
trances may be rare, or may pass unrecognised in this culture, but we 

consider them as a normal part of human behaviour. Re- 
searchers who have studied possession cults report that it is the better 
adjusted citizens who are most likely to become possessed. Many 
people regard 'trance' as a sign of madness, just as they presume that 
'madmen' must be easy to hypnotise. The truth is that if madmen 
were capable of being under 'social control' they would never have 
revealed the behaviour that categorised them as insane. It's a tautology 
to say that normal people arc the most suggestible, since it's because 
they're the most suggestible that they're the most normal ! 

If we compare Mask work with 'possession cults', then we can see 
many similarities. It's true that the possessed person is often sup- 
posed to remember nothing that happens during the trance — but this 
is also observed sometimes in Mask work, even though it's not de- 
manded. And two types of possession are often described : an am- 
nesiac and a lucid state. Possessed people don't seem to need speech 
lessons (which Masks do, as described later), but there are many 
descriptions of inarticulate sounds preceding speech. And sometimes a 
deeply possessed Mask will speak from the first moment. 

Every Mask teacher will recognise this situation, reported by 
Simpson of a Shango cult: 'One person said, "The drummers are not 
beating well tonight." A drummer called out that "It is no use to drum 
if you get no response." Later a woman stood up and shouted: "You 
are not singing at all tonight." The leader appeared and denounced 
the group for its lack of enthusiasm.' 

Like Mask teachers, the 'priests' in possession cults are high status, 
but 'indulgent' to the possessed trancers. Maya Deren describes an 
incident in Haiti when someone possessed by the God Ghede* 
rived at the wrong time. The Houngan (priest) objected. 

Oh I just dropped in", he (Ghede) said, making a self-effacing 
"to look around a bit. I'll just stroll around and look things 
over." ' (Ghede then asked for nine cassavas — flat breads.) 'Ghede 
stood eating two of them at once as if he was part of the audience, 
and watched the great loa (spirit) Ogoun and Damballa. Then the 
audience was distracted by the problem of a man who had climbed 
up a tree under possession of Damballa. As the possession seemed 
about to leave him the Houngan was begging Damballa to bring the 
man to earth before leaving (else the man might fall and kill himself).' 
Ghede then missed some of his cassavas. 'Suddenly Ghede threw a 
tantrum about the thieves who had stolen his remaining cassavas. 

spelt Ghede, Gheda, (Papa), Gueda, etc. by different writers. 


He caught hold of the Houngan and shrieked and stamped his feet, 
meanwhile Damballa and Ogoun were being ignored. There was no 
choice but to buy Ghede more cassavas and some biscuits to placate 

'Now as the loa turned to walk off with the new food, the Houngan, 
smiling, said to him, "Are you sure it wasn't a man in a little multi- 
coloured cap who stole those cassavas?" 

'Ghede wheeled with enormous eyes of innocence. "A little cap? 
What man in a little cap?" . . . Someone called out: "Are you sure 
you don't know who stole your cassavas?" Whereupon, looking at us 
out of the corner of his eye with a delightful and endearing expression, 
Ghede winked once, slowly, and walked away.' (The Divine Horsemen, 
Thames and Hudson, London, 1953; Delta Books, New York, 1970.) 

Ghede, God of death, and of sexuality, is consumed by raging 
hungers, but note the paradox that the supernatural creature who we 
would expect to be 'super-adult' is very childlike — exactly as the 
Masks arc. Ghede, in Dcren's description, sounds exactly like a Mask. 

'We asked him why he liked to wear smoked glasses. "Well," he 
explained, "I spend so much time in the dark underworld that it 
makes my eyes sensitive to the sun." "Why", we asked then, "do you 
remove the right lens so often?" "Well, my dear," he answered, "it's 
this way: with my left eye, I watch over the whole universe. As for the 
right, I keep that eye on my food, so that no thief will get it." ' 

The character of a Mask will not be like the wearer's character. 
Simpson, writing of the Shango cults, says : 'My informants denied 
that there is a close correspondence between the personality character- 
istics of a power and his followers. Sometimes a power manifests itself 
on a "child" ("horse") whose personality is the exact opposite of the 
god's. A devotee may be possessed by a violent power at one time and 
by a quiet power on another occasion according to the work to be 

done One informant said: "What a person is afraid to do, he does 

when possessed." ' 

My suspicion is that the number of 'personality types' that emerge 
in Mask work is pretty limited. To be sure, we would have to compare 
films from different cultures, and analyse the movements and sounds 
of the 'spirits'. This research hasn't been carried out, but just as 
myths from all over the world show similar structures, so I believe 
that wherever there is a 'Pantalone-type' Mask there will be Pantalones. 
The same characters persisted in the Commedia dell' Arte not because 
the tradition was sterile, but because the Masks themselves imposed 
certain ways of behaving. Chaplin's Tramp has always existed. Harpo, 


and Stan Laurel, and Pappa Gueda, and Ranga the Witch, and the 
Braggard Soldier, are just there, wherever there is a human brain. 

I consider the possessed trance as a particular form of the hypnotic 
trance. Some people have denied this, but all the phenomena typical 
of possession can be induced by hypnosis. It's true that clinical 
hypnosis looks very different, but that is because the hypnotist isn't 
arranging a performance before an approving audience. 8 As there is 
hardly any literature on Mask possession, I'll quote some examples of 
spirit possession. Anyone teaching the Mask is likely at some time to 
encounter deep trance states, so it's useful to understand their nature. 

Here's Lucian's description of a priestess being possessed at Delphi : 
'She went blundering frantically about the shrine, with the god 
mounted on the nape of her neck, knocking over the tripods that stood 
in her path. The hair rose on her scalp, and when she tossed her head 
the wreaths went flying over the bare floor ... her mouth foamed 
lziedly; she groaned, gasped, uttered weird sounds, and made the 
;e cave re-echo with her dismal shrieks. In the end Apollo forced 

er to intelligible speech Before her spirit could be restored to 

lie light of common day, a spell of unconsciousness intervened. Apollo 
was washing her mind with Lethe water, to make her forget the fate- 
ful secrets she had learned during his effulgent visitation. The spirit 
of divine truth departed and returned to whence it came; Phemonoe 
collapsed on the floor, and was revived with difficulty.' (Translated by 
Robert Graves, Pharsalia, Penguin, 1956.) 

The fear, and the feeling of the god mounting on to the neck, or 
head, is typical of possession as encountered in the New World cults. 7 
But compare Lucan's description above with one by David G. 
Mandelbaum writing of possession in a village in South India. 

'A spasm of shivering works through the diviner, then another, and 
his head begins to shake from side to side. The head movements con- 
tinue with increasing velocity until it seems as if no human vertebrae 
could stand the strain. The diviner may fall to his knees and beat 
his palms against the earth with a furious tattoo, but the deity does not 
speak through him until his hair is loosened. The long Kota locks are 
tied up with a cord which has ritual significance, and this cord must be 
dislodged by the force of the head motion. When the diviner's hair 
does fall free about his oscillating head, a strangled sob bursts forth 
from him — the first articulation of the god speaking through his chosen 
medium. With jerky, strangled utterance, the diviner's voice serves as 
the mouthpiece of the deity.' (Anthropology of Folk Religion, Charles 
Leslie, i960.) 


William Sargant has compared the possessed trance to the Pavlovian 
state of 'transmarginal inhibition'. When a brain is subjected to great 
stress a protective breakdown occurs : first the brain begins to give the 
same response to strong as to weak signals (the grading goes), next 
the brain responds more strongly to weak signals, and then conditioned 
responses reverse— he cites the case of Maya Dcren as an example of 
'transmarginal inhibition'. During her study of the voodoo cults in 
Haiti, she became possessed herself on several occasions. Once she 
arrived to film a ceremony, but 'blanked out' when the drums started, 
and recovered consciousness to find that not only was the ceremony 
over, but that she had conducted it herself. She says : 

'The possessed benefits least of all men from his own possession. 
He may suffer for it in material loss, in the sometimes painful, always 
exhausted aftermath. And to the degree that his consciousness persists 
into its first moments or becomes aware of it at the very end, he 
experiences an overwhelming fear. Never have I seen the face of such 
anguish, ordeal and blind terror as at moments when the loa comes.' 

One would imagine that people would struggle to avoid this terrify- 
ing experience, but it's obvious that many people desire it. It's part 
of the voodoo mythology that the god should possess you 'against 
your will'. I would think that Maya Deren was subject to a high level 
of conflict, but it's significant that she was possessed by the beautiful, 
sexy goddess Erzulie, and she did get an amazing chapter of her book. 
I. M. Lewis says : 'The possessed person who in the seance is the 

centre of attention says in effect, "Look at me, I am dancing" 

Haitian voodoo ceremonies are quite clearly theatres, in which prob- 
lems and conflicts relating to the life situations of the participants are 
dramatically enacted with great symbolic force. . . . Everything takes 
on the tone and character of modern psychodrama or group therapy. 
Abreaction is the order of the day. Repressed urges and desires, the 
idiosyncratic as well as the socially conditioned, are given full public 
rein.' (Ecstatic Religion, Penguin, 1971.) 

Maya Deren's first possession occurred when she was a guest of 
honour at a voodoo ceremony. She was absorbed in talking to the 
Houngan and wasn't attending to the drums or the singing. This 
would tend to make her more vulnerable. Then she was called to take 
part in the ceremony for a moment, and 'forgot' what she had to do, 
even though she had done it often at previous ceremonies. What she 
did 'happened' to be right and she returned to her chair, to find that 
the drums and singing were louder and 'sharper'. 

I would say that she was now already in fight trance. She was then 

caught up in the singing until she found herself 'standing bolt upright, 
singing or perhaps even screaming the song'. She felt 'winded' and 
took no part in the dancing. 

She describes a strong feeling of being at one with the group : 'I 
have but to rise, to step forward, to become a part of this glorious 
movement, flowing with it, its motion becoming mine, as the roll of 
the sea might become the inundation of my own body. At such mo- 
ments one does not move to the sound, one is the movement of the 
sound, created and borne by it; hence nothing is difficult.' 

She then crosses to her servant, only to find that her leg 'roots to 
the ground'. She experiences an 'unpleasant lightness in the head', 
and repeats the words 'hold together' to herself. She goes outside 
smokes a cigarette and feels her head 'tightening, integrating, 
becoming solid once more'. 

When she hears the salute to the god Odin, she 'has' to return in 
order not to give offence. Had she really wanted to escape she could of 
course have 'become ill'. She touches the hand of a possessed person 
and feels a momentary shock like 'electricity', and other people indi- 
cate to her that she is likely to become possessed. She is troubled by 
her 'persistent vulnerability' and all round her people are falling into 
trance. She decides to continue : 'To run away would be cowardice. I 
ould resist, but I must not escape. And I can resist best, I think to 
myself, if I put aside the fears and nervousness ; if, instead of suspect- 
ing my vulnerability, I set myself in brazen competition with all this 
would compel me to its authority.' 
At some level she clearly wants to enter trance, but she believes 
is being forced into it against her will. The spirits are to be fully 
responsible for casting aside her personality. She's had all the warning 
signals, and now she joins in the singing and the dancing and feels no 
fear. She feels incredibly tired but she doesn't stop until suddenly it 
Dmes easier, although she doesn't notice the exact moment at which 
pace which seemed unbearably demanding had slipped down a 
i into a slow motion'. 
It's clear that her time sense is distorting, and that she's already 
in a very odd state of consciousness. Her leg 'roots' to the ground 
again. The 'slower' drums will actually be speeding up as the drum- 
mers try to push her into deep trance. She sees everything as very 
beautiful and she turns to a neighbour to say, 'See how lovely that is' 
when she finds herself isolated, alone in a circle. 

'I realise like a shaft of terror struck through me, that it is no longer 
myself whom I watch. Yet it is myself, for as that terror strikes, we 

fear. S 


two are made one again, joined by and upon the point of the left leg. 
The white darkness starts to shoot up; I wrench my foot free but the 
effort catapults me over what seems a vast, vast distance, and I come 
to rest on a firmness of arms and bodies which would hold me up. But 
these have voices — great insistent, singing voices — whose sound would 
smother me. With every muscle I pull loose and again plunge across a 
vast space. ... My skull is a drum; each great beat drives that leg, 
like the point of a stake, into the ground. The singing is at my very ear, 
inside my head. This sound will drown mc! "Why don't they stop! 
Why don't they stop!" I cannot wrench the leg free. I am caught in 
this cylinder, this well of sound. There is nothing anywhere except 
this. There is no way out. The white darkness moves up the veins of 
my leg like a swift tide rising, rising; it is a great force which I cannot 
sustain or contain, which surely will burst my skin. "Mercy" I 
scream within me. I hear it echoed by the voices, shrill and unearthly: 
"Erzulie!" The bright darkness floods up through my body, reaches 
my head, engulfs me. I am sucked down and exploded at once. That is 

This sounds more like the priestess at Delphi than hypnosis, but 
isn't just a spectacular induction technique. Alfred Metraux observes 
that 'People who are used to possession pass quickly through the 
whole range of nervous symptoms, and then, suddenly, there they 
are: in full trance. Even as much preamble as this may be dispensed 
with when a ceremony is in full swing and demands instantaneous 
entry on the part of the gods.' (Voodoo in Haiti, translated by H. 
Charteris, Andre Deutsch, 1972.) He also points out that the intensity 
of the attack depends on the nature of the god being incarnated. I sec 
Sargent's 'transmarginal inhibition' as being just another way of 
entering trance. 

As for the terror that she insists on, there are many accounts of 
'calm' possession, so I don't think terror is built-in' to the process, or 
rather that it's the mythology that produces the terror. Interestingly 
Maya Deren said elsewhere, and before ever she went to Haiti : 'Total 
amnesia, although less spectacular than many other forms of mental 
disorder, has always seemed to me the most terrifying.' ('An Ana- 
gram of Ideas on Art', Form and Film, 1946.) 

In possession cults the worshippers incarnate the gods, and their 
posture, movements, and voices change as does the facial expression. 
Oesterreich says: 'Transformation of the physiognomy appears in all 
descriptions.' (Oesterreich also mentions an eleven-year-old girl who 
began speaking in a 'deep bass voice'.) The spirits that arrive are al- 

: always well known to the congregation, and the priest will have 
: requisite costumes or props ready for them. Extended improvisa- 
tions then take place which are very theatrical. Here's Jane Belo de- 
; an Indonesian possession ceremony: 
'The crowd that gathered was alert and attentive, the whole spirit 
like that of a game in which everyone would take part. Everyone 
would join in the singing which directed the trancer's performance. 
People would call out jibes to the performers, urging them on, taunt- 
ing them with phrases known to infuriate them. The crowd enjoyed 
this very much indeed. When the time came to bring the act to an 
end, a whole group would fall on the trancer, who struggled fiercely in 
convulsions precipitated by the attack. Amid great excitement, every- 
one would fall over everyone else in a headlong rough-and-tumble. 
They would then set themselves to nursing the trancer back to normal 
consciousness. All would then be just as intent on caring for the man 
who was coming back to himself as they had been a few minutes 
before in taunting and exciting the creature he had "become".' 
(Trance in Bali, Columbia University Press, New York, i960.) 
Voodoo trancers may be possessed by several different gods one 
another, and the same god may inhabit several people at the 
same time — in Haiti there was once a mass demonstration in which 
several hundred people all possessed by Papa Gheda, marched on the 
sidential palace. It's reported that voodoo trancers remember 
nothing about their possessions, but Jane Belo, writing of trance in 
a, describes two types of possession: one in which a 'power is 
at that is different from his "I", and makes two simultaneous 
integrations, and that in which there is a temporary but total change 
of the personality in which the person is "transformed" into another 
being or object.' (Trance in Bali.) 

Here's an example of voodoo gods improvising together described 
by Metraux: 'These impromptus, which vary in style, are much 
appreciated by the audience, who yell with laughter, join in the 
dialogue, and noisily show their pleasure or discontent. Take an 
example: someone possessed by Zaka appears under the peristyle in 
the get-up of a peasant. By canny movements he mimes the anxiety 
of a countryman come to town, and who fears to be robbed. Now 
another possessed person joins him, one might almost say 'comes on'. 
It is Guede-nibo of the Guede family, which watches over the dead. 
Zaka is clearly terrified by the presence of his gloomy colleague and 
tries to propitiate him, inviting him to have something to eat and to 
drink some rum. Guede, who is making a show as a townsman, ex- 


changes courtesies with him, trying to tease him. He asks him: "What 
have you got in your bag?" He searches it and examines the contents. 
Alarmed, Zaka cries "Stop, stop!" The bag is returned to him only to 
be surreptitiously lifted off him while he is examining one of the sick. 
Zaka, in despair, calls for cards and shells in order to discover the 
thief by means of divination. The audience chants "Play, Zaka, play".' 
(And so on.) (Voodoo in Haiti.) 

Any Mask teacher will recognise the scenes reported to occur 
during 'possession' as typical of the Mask. One would expect the 
gods to be presented as supermen, but in all 'trance' cultures we find 
a mythology which describes the gods as acting in a childlike way. As 
Melville says, 'The gods are like children and must be told what to 


Teaching Mask Work 

For an introductory Mask class I will set up a table 
with a variety of props on it. They'll be on a table because the act of 
bending down may turn a new Mask off. I avoid any props that would 
present 'difficulties'. An umbrella might encourage a Mask to think 
how to open it. An alarm clock might suggest winding it up. Anything 
that would require a Mask to have a mental age of more than two and 
a half I would remove. The objects on the table are the sort that would 
interest young children. I choose things that give a variety of tactile 
experiences: a scarf, a carrot, bells, silver foil, a jar, a balloon, a 
piece of fur, a doll, a toy animal, a stick, rubber tubing, flowers, 
sweets. Children's books are all right if they're small, and it helps if 
they're in a foreign language. (My wife, Ingrid, wraps up Utile presents 
for the Masks in the classes she gives ; each tiny packet has a sweet, or 
a litde toy in it, which is something the Masks like.) 

I put some furniture on the stage, and set up a screen to one side. 
Behind the screen are hats, and coats, and pyjamas, boiler suits, and a 
few dresses. If the clothes are a little out of fashion, so much the better. 
Real clothes are generally better than stage costumes, though. Sheets 
of coloured material are good. I used to have some big felt 'shoes' that 
some Masks liked— I think they were made to fit inside gumboots in 
cold weather. 

Once the students are ready I change my status, and play 'high'. 
I don't bounce around and wave my arms like I would for a comedy 
class. I become stiller, 'serious' and more 'adult'. The change in me 
produces a change of feeling in the students which I exploit by 

assuring them that the Masks are not dangerous, that whatever hap- 
pens I can handle it, and that all that matters is that they must take off 
the Mask when I ask them to. The more I reassure them the more 
jumpy they get, and by the time they come to take a Mask many of 
them will be trembling. The skill lies in creating the correct balance 
between interest and anxiety. 

I also have to establish that they will not be held responsible for 
their actions while in the Mask. I illustrate this with stories. 

We had a Mask that had a thick droopy nose and angry eyebrows. 
It was a deep, congested red in colour, and it liked to pick up sticks 
and hit people. It was quite safe so long as the teacher knew this and 
said 'Take the Mask off!' sharply at the critical moment. Someone 
borrowed it once — Pauline Melville, who had taken over my classes at 
Morley College. Next day she returned the Masks and said that some- 
one had been hit on the arm. I had to explain that it was my fault for 
not warning her. (And I pointed to the Mask that hit people.) I once 
saw three similar droopy-nosed Masks — they were Kabuki Masks, and 
they were on the hanamichi (the platform that runs through the 
audience) and yes, they had sticks and were threatening people. 

Another Mask was called Mr Parks. This one used to laugh, and 
stare into the air, and sit on the extreme edge of chairs and fall off 
sideways. Shay Gorman created the character. I took the Mask along 
to a course I gave in Hampshire. The students were entering from 
behind a screen and suddenly I heard Mr Parks's laughter. It entered 
with the same posture Shay Gorman had adopted, and looked up as 
if something was very amusing about the ceiling, and then it kept 
sitting on the extreme edge of a chair as if it wanted to fall off. For- 
tunately it didn't, because the wearer wasn't very athletic. It really 
makes no sense that a Mask should be able to transmit that sort of 
information to its wearer. 

Once students begin to observe for themselves the way that Masks 
compel certain sorts of behaviour, then they really begin to feel the 
presence of 'spirits'. I remember a Mask I'd just made. A student tried 
it out and turned into a hunched, twisted, gurgling creature. Then a 
latecomer arrived, picked up the same Mask, and the identical creature 
appeared. I tell students to take any Mask as long as it's comfortable. 
Probably they'll be manoeuvring to pick one that they think they can 
do well, but this doesn't really matter because it'll look quite different 
when they see it reflected in the mirror. Once the student has found 
a comfortable Mask, one that doesn't dig into his eyes, I arrange his 
hair so that it covers the elastic and the top of the forehead of the Mask. 


I then say : 'Relax. Don't think of anything. When I show you the 
mirror, make your mouth fit the Mask, and hold it so that the mouth 
and the Mask make one face. You'll know all about the creature in the 
mirror, so you don't have to think about it. Become the thing you see, 
turn away from the mirror, and go to the table. There'll be something 
that it wants. Let it find it. Disobey anything I'm saying if it wants to, 
but if I say "Take the Mask off", then you must take it off.' 

I present the mirror very smoothly, slicing it upwards into the 
space between me and the actor. The shock of seeing the reflection 
is to be as strong as possible. After two seconds I begin to step aside, 
swinging the mirror with me, so that the actor will automatically 
take a step, and will be facing the table with the props as the mirror 
leaves him. If the actor seems to be resisting the change I might say 
'You're changing now', or 'Make the face fit the Mask.' I use a head- 
sized mirror because the information they need comes from the face. 
If the mirror is bigger, then they see their whole body and are likely 
to start posturing. I don't want them to think about being another 
creature, I want them to experience being another creature. 8 

Some students will compulsively touch their Mask as soon as they 
see their reflection. This is a defence : they want to reassure themselves 
that it's 'only a mask'. If students seem seriously afraid then I tell 
them to cross their fingers or something. Once they accept such a 
method of keeping themselves 'safe' they've already entered a 'magical 
universe'. When they agree to uncross their fingers or whatever, the 
effects of the Mask will be even stronger. In possession cults you can 
protect yourself by clinging to the beams or 'tying knots in your 
underwear'. Some students go rigid, and then remove the Mask, 
visibly shaken, and say 'Nothing happened.' Other students 'think out' 
what to do, and then hop around pretending to be boxers, or posture 
like Harlequins or whatever. 'Don't have any words in your head', I say. 

When a student tries on a Mask for the second time I may say 
'When you look in the mirror let the Mask m£.ke a sound, and keep 
the sound going all through the scene.' This is a meditation technique 
very effective in blocking verbalisation (like Tibetan monks chanting 
'Oooooommmmm'). I often say things like 'Yes, that's excellent', or 
'Who is it?' or 'Amazing' even before students have looked in the 
mirror, so that the feeling of being different, and hidden, is reinforced. 
The Masks begin to pant, and wheeze, and howl, which freaks out the 
people watching even more, and 'pumps the atmosphere up'. In 
voodoo cults the drums throb for hours to call the gods across the 
ocean from Africa. 

Once one person is possessed, others usually follow almost im- 
mediately. In a beginners' Mask class there is usually a 'dead' twenty 
minutes before the first Mask appears — if you're lucky. My method 
is to 'seed' the class with a fully developed Mask. The presence of a 
'possessed' Mask allows students to 'let go', and alarms and reassures 
at the same time. The same phenomenon is reported in possession 
cults; and it's easier to hypnotise someone who has just seen it done 
to someone else. 

I encourage students to throw themselves in, and to stop being 
'critical', by saying: 'Make mistakes! These Masks are more extreme, 
more powerful than ordinary faces ! Don't be timid. Make big mis- 
takes. Don't worry about being wrong ! Rely on me to stop you !' Some- 
times I say: 'What you saw in the mirror was right] But you only 
showed me a shadow of it. Try the Mask again. You'll never get any- 
where if you aren't brave.' Sometimes I see that a person is trans- 
formed for just a moment as they look in a mirror, but then take hold 
of themselves to cancel it out. I stop them, make them remove the 
Mask and then start again immediately. 

A girl puts on a Mask and is transformed. She seems to illuminate 
the room, but instantly she removes it. 

'Be gentle with the Mask,' I say. When people feel that the Mask 
has made them betray themselves they'll throw it down. I've seen one 
hurled from centre stage to the back of the stalls. In the present case 
my warning reinforces the feeling that unexpected and violent things 
may happen. 

'I couldn't do it,' she says. 

'But it was marvellous.' 

'It felt wrong.' 

'You mean you didn't like the thing you had turned into.' 
'That's right.' 

'That means you can do it, the experience was real.' 
I reassure her, and let her watch and see that no one is coming to 

The problem is not one of getting the students to experience the 
'presence' of another personality — almost everyone gets a strong kick 
from their reflection—the difficulty lies in stopping the student from 
making the change 'himself'. There's no reason for the student to 
start 'thinking' when he already 'knows' intuitively exactly what sort 
of creature he is. Getting him to hold his mouth in a fixed position, 
and having him make sounds helps to block verbalisation, and 
'finding a prop' helps to tear the Mask away from the mirror. Un- 


fortunately, even the effort of walking may throw the actor into 
normal consciousness. That's why I hold the mirror near the table 
(less than eight feet), and in extreme cases I start the Mask at the 
table, or sitting in a chair. 

A new Mask is like a baby that knows nothing about the world. 
Everything looks astounding to it, and it has little access to its wearer's 
skills. Very often a Mask will have to learn how to sit, or bend down, 
or how to hold things. It's as if you build up another personality from 
scratch; it's as if a part of the mind gets separated, and then develops 
on its own. There are exceptions, but in most cases the very best 
Masks start off knowing the least. They don't know how to take the 
lids off jars; they don't understand the idea of wrapping things (given 
a present they just admire the paper). When objects fall to the floor it's 
as if they've ceased to exist. One student always left the room before 
wearing a particularly regressive Mask. I asked her why, and she said, 
'It's silly, but I'm afraid I might wet myself, so I always go to the 

Normal Masks go through a period of learning, so that after a dozen 
or so classes they have a limited vocabulary, a number of 'props' that 
they regularly handle, and some sort of history based on interactions 
with other Masks. A Mask that grabs everything will have learned 
that the other Masks will punish it, and so on. Actors who 'can't do' 
Mask work are never able to let the Mask be truly stupid and ignorant. 
They try to transfer their own skills directly. Instead of allowing a 
Mask to explore a closed umbrella they'll 'take over' and open it. 
Instead of letting the Mask suffer because it hasn't learned to sit in a 
chair they'll 'make' it sit. By their impatience, and desire to exert 
control, they bypass a necessary process. The Mask feeling leaks 
away and we are left with the actor pretending to be another person, 
instead of being another person. 

Some Masks are 'muscle-bound', and act like 'monsters'. I don't 
encourage these unless they're all an actor can produce. The most 
important thing is that an actor should dredge up some sort of 'spirit', 
but I prefer Masks that release the actor physically and vocally. I 
encourage Masks that are 'human', like big extrovert children, or 
expressive of very intense feelings: greed, lust, or tenderness, for 
example. As soon as a Mask arrives that seems useful I get the actor 
to repeat it. I say, 'Tell yourself you're looking in the mirror for the 
first time, the Mask will do the rest.' This stops the actor from trying 
to remember what the Mask did 'last time'. 

Soon there are a number of recognisable 'personalities' that I can 

put together in scenes. I usually tell each Mask that it owns all the 
props, and that it's going to meet some nice people. At first Masks are 
often rather grotesque, very depressed or manic— and sometimes 
frightening. Interacting socialises them. They make friends and 
enemies. We now have a community of Masks, each with its own 
costume, props, and personal history. 

They probably still don't speak — and the inability to speak is almost 
a sign of good Mask work. Actors are amazed to find that it's neces- 
sary to give the Masks 'speech lessons'. Masks usually understand 
words said to them, but they have the comprehension of a young child. 
Long words are ignored, or produce bewilderment. 

I set up a scene in which the Mask is to meet a 'very nice voice 
teacher'. I collect the props that I think will interest the Mask, and I 
get someone to stay close to it with a mirror. 

'', I say. 'Sit?" 

It looks baffled. 

'Sit,' I say, and I sit on a chair. If it 'catches on' it'll imitate me and 
probably make some sort of sound. 'Stand,' I say, and we play 
'sitting and standing' like two idiots. Then I give the Mask a present, 
perhaps a balloon. 'Balloon,' I say, and if it doesn't want it, or won't 
say the word, I don't pressure it. If it likes the balloon, I say 'Yellow 
balloon' or whatever. Whenever the Mask begins to turn off, it gets a 
recharge from the mirror, and I keep well back, and hand it things at 
arm's length. If I get too close to it I'll probably turn it off. I have to 
be careful not to invade the Mask's 'space', although proximity 
between Masks will deepen their trance. 

When other people act as voice teachers they usually want to bully 
the Masks. I suppose this comes from the way we treat young children. 
They touch the Masks; they try to blackmail them into speaking, 
refusing to give them presents until they obey. If a word is said, the 
'teachers' try frantically to get the pronunciation exactly right. Then 
the Mask suffers and won't co-operate. 

By far the best way is to have one Mask that already speaks work 
as teacher. Such Masks often express annoyance at their pupils' 
'stupidity', but there's something very magical in removing the human 
being from the process so that the Masks hand on their own traditions. 
Masks can even hold the mirrors. 

I'm happy if I get three sounds which resemble words in a five- 
minute session. Many words can't be said at the beginning because 
of the way the mouth is being held. Three words is a great achieve- 
ment. Once the Mask has learned a dozen or so words it begins to 


transfer words from its wearer's vocabulary, or to pick them up from 
other Masks. 

Speech lessons sound silly, but remember Chaplin, who never 
really found the right voice for his Tramp. He made many experiments 
and finally made him sing in gibberish (Modern Times). 'Charlie' 
always sounds like Chaplin when he talks, and I think Chaplin knew 
this, and this is probably why he abandoned the character. If he'd 
been able to work in a Mask class he'd almost certainly have been able 
to find a voice. 

An actor may develop several Masks, each with its own character- 
istics and vocabulary. If I use an unfamiliar word to a Mask it'll ask me 
what it means, and it'll always remember that word. What is freaky is 
that each Mask remembers what it knows, and also what it doesn't 
know. An actor left the Studio just when his Mask was learning to 
speak. After two years he returned, and started another speech lesson, 
and he was using exactly the vocabulary he had learned at the previous 
class. Hypnotic subjects are reported to be in rapport with all the 
other occasions when they were in trance, and the same is true of Mask 

I speed up the learning of words by getting the Masks to count up 
to ten, or to say the alphabet. Nursery rhymes are useful. I get Masks 
to recite little poems to the audience who applaud wildly. One 
nursery rhyme can teach so many words that the Mask goes straight 
into simple speech. 

Here are some notes by Mask students on what the Mask state feels 


T found that the inability to speak was the freakiest feeling, com- 
bined with a feeling of being on an energetic high, and having a total 
disregard for the audience. Colours seemed to deepen in intensity, 
and objects became possessions. The terrible feeling of having to 
succeed in front of people faded into the background, and body move- 
ments lost their stiffness and inhibitions. Sounds came unplanned to 
my throat. 

'Once out of the Mask I find I am exhausted emotionally and 
physically, and cannot resume the Mask for a while without a rest. 
As an improviser I am nervous about appearing 'right', but once in a 
Mask, there's no such feeling and the Mask can improvise indefi- 
nitely (if happy).' 

This student was an experienced amateur actress, and had learned 
an untruthful but effective way of presenting herself, based on strong 
'demonstrations of feeling'. She was very 'armoured' against the 

audience, but in Mask work she was 'released', and seemed wonder- 
fully gifted. My suspicion is that her extreme exhaustion may have 
been linked to residual anxieties about 'letting go'. I worked with her 
for a year, mosdy on improvisation, and she was just beginning to 
transfer her Mask skills into her acting skills. With luck she should be 

out of the cul-de-sac. 

Another student writes : 

T always come away from a Mask class with a feeling of renewed 
eshness, a light feeling. 

T like the Mask state very much — I guess you could say it acts on 
me the way some drugs would affect other people — an escape perhaps? 

'My sense of touch and sound are increased, I want to touch and 
feel everything, loud sounds don't bother me. Colours are much 
brighter and more meaningful— I am more aware of them. 
'Something happens to my eyes. 
'A childlike sense of discovery. 

'As a Mask there are a lot of things that can do a lot of harm — being 
hit — seeing someone else take their Mask off ... a sense of failure 
during a Mask class. Maybe when I say harm I don't mean physically 
— but mentally it boggles the mind a lot — because you are literally a 
young child open to all the world will offer and the first experience is 
usually the lasting one. 

'I feel much happier with myself as an actor now— because I have 
had some Mask training — can I tell why I feel better? I don't know. I 
just have a lot more confidence. I feel 'right' in the Mask state, what- 
ever I do is fine, no emotional hangups. 

'It's hard for me to take a Mask off that has worked for a long period 
of time successfully — once when I did take it off, I felt my face was 
being ripped off with it.' 
A third student writes : 

'When I had my first successful speech lesson, I felt that I knew 
how to say the words but the Mask didn't. A part of me knew how, 
and a part of me did not. The latter part was much the stronger of 
the two and maintained control without a struggle. . . . 

'Masks do not like to pretend. In order to do the scene where the 
Mask enters from outdoors, I had to go out to the hall door and then 
come in. On the other hand it was easy for her (the Mask) to pretend 
that Ingrid's purse was a tea-cosy because she had no idea what a 
tea-cosy was.' 

I remember some rather staid Swedish schoolteachers being let 
loose in a garden wearing Masks that they had 1 


They shrieked with delight, raced over the flower beds and started 
tearing up the flowers. I stopped the scene, and found some of them 
very upset, since they'd never have imagined themselves behaving in 
such a way. 

Students are likely to have vivid dreams when they begin Mask 
work. One very gifted student found himself sleepwalking for the 
first time in years. A Canadian student was trying a Mask on at home 
and went out into his garden wearing it when the temperature was 
minus twenty Centigrade. He was astounded to find that he was stand- 
ing in the snow in his bare feet. Masks are very strange and should 
be approached with caution, not because they're really dangerous, 
but because a bad experience may put a teacher or student off for 

At the moments when a Mask 'works' the student feel a decision- 
lessness, and an inevitability. The teacher sees a sudden 'naturalness', 
and that the student is no longer 'acting'. At first the Mask may flash 
on for just a couple of seconds. I have to see and explain exactly when 
the change occurs. The two states are actually very different, but 
most students are insensitive to changes in consciousness. Some 
students hold rigidly to 'normal consciousness', but most keep switch- 
ing from their control to the Mask's control and back again. It be- 
comes possible to say 'The mask switched off when you touched the 
table', or 'It flashed on for a second when you saw the other Mask.' 
Once a student understands the immense difference between con- 
trolling a Mask and being controlled by a Mask, then he can be taught. 
It doesn't matter if he loses the Mask state a couple of seconds after 
leaving the mirror, because once he understands the point at which 
the change occurs, the trance state can be extended. The essential 
thing is to identify the two sensations: (i) the student working the 
Mask, which we don't want; (2) the Mask working the student, a 
state which the student learns to sustain. 

When the actors have developed one or two characters, and have 
learned to sustain them, I push them into playing more complex 
situations. There's a sort of 'hump' you have to get them over. I invent 
the sort of situations that a three-year-old would respond to: playing 
'shop', stealing, being shouted at by angry grown-ups, and so on. I 
also set up 'marathon' scenes in which the Masks interrelate for a 
long time— up to an hour. If someone turns off they can get a 're- 
charge' from the mirror, or they can rejoin the audience. More Masks 
arrive as other Masks leave. Once this stage is reached, then the Masks 
function as entertainers. You put Masks together and enjoy the scenes 

that emerge. They have their own 'world', and it's fascinating to watch 
them exploring it. 

In normal life the personality conceals or checks impulses. Mask 
characters work on the opposite principle : they are childlike, impuls- 
ive, open; their machinations are completely transparent to the 
audience, although not necessarily to each other. If you look at, say, 
the adults on a bus, you can see that they work to express a 'deadness'. 

If Masks were subjected to the same pressures as our children are, 
then they also would become dull and inexpressive. We adults have 
learned to be opaque. We live among hard surfaces that reflect sound 
back to us, so we're constantiy telling our children to be quiet. Our 
lives are surrounded with precious objects— glass, china, televisions, 
stereos — so that movement has to be restrained. Any adult who acted 
like a three-year-old would be intolerable to us. 

John Holt made this point when discussing the 'wooden' look of 
retarded children (in How Children Fail.) A fourteen-year-old with a 
mental age of six doesn't 'act six' because we won't let him, but he 
can't 'act fourteen' either, so he looks stupid as a defence. A child of 
one and a half can look bright and alert, but an adult with a mental 
age of ten has to look like a moron because this is the most acceptable 
persona he's able to assemble. When Veronica Sherbourne allows re- 
tarded children to behave spontaneously, we see at once that the 
deadness was only a cloak, a crippling disguise, yet we 'normal' people 
are wooden and inexpressive compared to the Masks. 

This is why Mask teachers or the priests at possession ceremonies 
are so indulgent. When Masks are set free among a crowd they are 
permitted all sorts of behaviour which would be instantly forbidden to 
normal people. 9 

One famous French teacher of the Mask — who won't approve of 
this essay — divides students immediately into those who can work 
Masks and those who can't. I think this is damaging. One of my best 
improvisers (Anthony Trent) spent eight weeks working very hard 
until a Mask possessed him. Whether a student can succeed or not 
depends partly on the skill of the teacher, and the incentive of the 
student. When I began teaching I thought that only about one in ten 
of my students could really 'become the Mask'. Recendy I created a 
Mask play with a company of actors, and because they had to succeed, 
everyone did— to some extent. Where possession is the norm (at least 
in the West Indies and Indonesia), there are always some people who 
don't become possessed. Maybe these just don't have sufficient in- 


The great improvement in my Mask teaching came when I thought 
of having people standing by to present mirrors during the scenes. The 
moment the Mask actor 'comes to himself' he snaps a finger and maybe 
two or three mirrors are rushed at him. This makes the learning pro- 
cess much easier. Masks can also have little mirrors in their pockets to 
turn themselves back on. 

Mask work is particularly suitable for 'tough' adolescents who may- 
normally think of drama as sissy. It appeals to them because it feels 
dangerous. I've seen excellent, and very sensitive Mask work by 
rather violent teenagers. Personally I think Mask work is something 
almost anyone can learn to enjoy. It's very refreshing to be able to 
shed the personality thrust on you by other people. 


The Waif 

I'll consider one particular Mask in more detail. This 
is 'the Waif' and it was made almost as a joke. I had smeared plasticine 
over a wig stand to serve as a base for further modelling. Then I 
stuck on three bits of plasticine, two circles and a lump, so that it had 
a nose and eyes. The result looked very 'alive'. I decided that this 
'joke' was worth making into a Mask— a decision which the people 
around me objected to, so I knew there must be something rather 
disturbing about this particular face. When the layers of paper were 
dry I painted it bluish grey, with a white nose and white protruding 

My wife Ingrid tried out the Mask and created a 'lost child' 
character, very nervous and wondering. Everyone became very fond of 
it. We turned it on in a garden once and it said everything seemed to 
be 'burning'. It seemed to see the world in a visionary manner. Ingrid 
and I both kept notes on it. Here are some of mine. 

'When first created it looked at everything as if amazed. It made 
"cor!" and "ooooooooorh" noises. It covers Ingrid's top lip, which 
makes Ingrid's mouth form a strange shape, as if her own top lip were 
fixed to the Mask. 

'I gave the Waif an ice cream on a stick. She tried to eat the paper. 
I took the paper off and showed her how to hold it. She held it by the 
chocolate coating. I explained again and she held the stick. She didn't 
wipe or lick the chocolate from her hand, she didn't seem to know 
there was a sticky mess on it. 

'The Waif has a strong rapport with me, so I play scenes with her. 

I am sweeping when she enters the acting area. She asks what I am 
doing. I say "sweeping", and offer her the broom. She takes the broom 
and holds it as if it was a baby. She hugs it as if it were alive, and 
nothing to do with sweeping. When she leaves she takes it with her 
and says "sweep" as if that were the broom's name. 

'I have used the Waif to civilise the violent Mask. This is an 
incredibly violent old man who picks up sticks and threatens to hit 
people. The Waif seems to be about four years old, so I set up a scene 
in which she was to arrive as his granddaughter. Everything the Waif 
touches she treats as someone else's, so I told the 'grandfather' that he 
was to tell her not to touch anything, and then leave. There was a 
teddy bear on the table. The Waif entered nervously holding a Utile 
suitcase, and was fascinated by the teddy bear. Granddad was gruff 
with her, and left. She picked up the teddy bear, and Granddad came 
back enraged and hit her (not hard). The Waif was appalled. Since 
this time the two Masks have almost become inseparable, and 
Granddad is now very protective, and interacts well with other Masks.' 

Here are some notes on the Waif by Ingrid: 

'I get very high on Mask work — it's like stepping out of my skin 
and experiencing something much more fluid and dynamic — some- 
times when the Mask is turned on there is a part of me sitting in a dist- 
ant corner of my mind that watches and notices changed body sensa- 
tions, emotions, etc. But it's very passive, this watcher — does nothing 
that criticises or interferes — and sometimes it's not there at all. Then 
it's like the "I" blanks out and "something else" steps in and experi- 
ences. When Ingrid switches back she can't always remember what 
that something else did or experienced. But while I am the Mask I 
experience it, or rather the Mask experiences itself like I do myself . . . 
only the way the Mask experiences itself is more intense. Things are 
more alive. The universe becomes magical — the body full of sensations. 
I suppose this is where the "high" comes from 

'It's like you get the freedom to explore all the personalities that 
any human being may develop into — all the shapes and feelings that 
could have been Ingrid but aren't. Some Masks don't trigger any re- 
sponse . . . maybe these are spirits outside Ingrid's repertoire, that is 
any one person may have a limited number of possibilities when he 
develops his personality. Most of the time it's like becoming a child 
again, but some Masks feel very adult even though their knowledge 
is limited. With the Waif I feel a distinct maturing process ... she 
now feels like a thirteen-to-fourteen-year-old; at first she felt six or 
seven years old.' 


Ingrid found that the Mask work helped her development as an 
improviser. At first, she says, she was 'extremely cautious and afraid 
of appearing in front of the class, and I couldn't bear being out in 
situations that made me appear vulnerable. The Waif had none of 
these qualities. She wasn't afraid to feel the emotions that came. She 
didn't really care about or notice the audience; also she is much freer 
in her relations with other Masks than Ingrid is with other people. I 
suppose for these reasons it was very nice for me to slip into this other 
creature and experience things I normally avoided or hadn't ex- 
perienced since childhood. It was a tremendous release— like a 
marvellous kind of therapy, because the feeling of release would still 
be with me after I'd taken off the Mask. However, I could still never 
have done all those things without the Mask on.' 

If we wanted to be analytical we could say that the flatness of the 
Mask, and its high forehead, are likely to trigger parental feelings. 
The eyes are very wide apart as if looking into the distance, and help- 
ing to give it its wondering look. Where the bottom of the Mask 
covers the wearer's top lip, a faint orange Up is painted onto the Mask. 
Everyone who has created a 'Waif' character with the Mask has lined 
their lip up with the Mask's, and then held it frozen. I wrote my play 
The Last Bird for this Mask, and the Danish actress Karen-lis 
Ahrenkiel played the role in the Aarhus production. It was only when 
she froze her top lip in this way that she suddenly found the character. 
The eyes of the Mask aren't level, which gives a lopsided feeling, and 
is probably the cause of the characteristic twisting movements that 
the Waif always has. 


Executioners, 'Noses' and 'Men' 

Another type of character Mask is the Executioner. 
This is a figure I resurrected from my childhood for a children's play, 
The Defeat of Giant Big-Nose. The actors wear dark clothes and soft 
black leather helmets which mould to the head and expose only the 
mouth and chin. Black tapes are sewn on so that they can be tied — 
which they never are, but the tapes help the brutal feeling and draw 
attention to the chin. Each actor cuts his own eye-holes, making them 
as small as possible. Only a glint of an eye is occasionally visible. If 
necessary pinpricks can be made around the hole, but the constriction 
of vision helps the actor to feel 'different'. 

To work this Mask you face another Executioner, and hold a grim- 


ace that shows both sets of teeth. You must never entirely lose this 
grimace. With it you can speak 'in character' — the voice has a threaten- 
ing roughness— and it releases very brutal feelings in the body. You 
feel aggressive, powerful and wide. If you expose both sets of teeth 
you're bound to sense yourself differently. Try it now : grimace and 
look round the room, move about and try and sense the differences. 
Some people who find it impossible to work the half masks break 
through after working Executioner Masks. Women never look 'right' 
as Executioners, but the grimace also releases strong feelings in them. 

'Noses' may be a 'way in' for some students. You need a long, 
pointed red nose held on by elastic, and a fluffy wig or soft hat. You 
then climb into a large sack or wrap a sheet round you — white seems 
to be preferred— and make yourself into a sort of tube that takes little 
steps and skips about. You place all your attention on the nose and 
hold it there, and then you face another 'Nose' and you both jabber 
in high-pitched gibberish, holding wide grins. 'Noses' are maniacally 
happy, move very quickly, and never do what they are told. They can 
be controlled by telling them to do the opposite of what you want 
them to do. They prefer to work in pairs, often turning each other 
on again by 'mirroring' each other for a moment. Very soon the high- 
pitched gibberish begins to throw up words, but they always jabber a 
lot. When they're really turned on they're amazing. The red noses 
seem to be pulling them around. 

Executioners and 'Noses' are likely to be hindered if they use 
mirrors. It's much better, in the early stages, if they just use each 
other. Later on, mirrors can be useful. 

'Men' are plastic commercial masks which are just round eyes, 
round noses and little moustaches — you see through the pupils of 
the 'eyes'. The actors wear overalls and soft hats. They use each other 
as mirrors and raise their hats to each other — straight up and down. 
They grin all the time, keep their elbows in to their sides as much as 
possible, and take short steps. They speak in gibberish, which soon 
gives way to language. With luck very real characters will suddenly 
emerge, and the actors will suddenly 'know' what to do, instead of 


Pre-Mask Exercises 

Most of my 'acting theory' comes from my study of 
the Mask, and there are many acting exercises that can be used as pre- 
Mask exercises. Here are some of them. 


Face Masks 

Face Masks probably go back at least to Copeau. I sit 
four actors on a bench, show them a mirror and say 'Make a face, 
nothing like your face, hold it, don't lose the expression.' The audience 
laugh at the transformation, but the actors don't feel that 'they' are 
being laughed at. 'Get up,' I say, 'shake hands with each other, say 
something.' Most actors find that their bodies move in a quite differ- 
ent way, but some hold on to themselves and 'insert a barrier' in 
the neck, so that the changes in the face can't effect the posture of the 
body. It's easy to draw gentle attention to this, and to encourage the 
actors to let their bodies 'do what they want to do'. The actors then 
play scenes while holding faces that express some sort of emotion. The 
greater the emotion expressed on the face the greater the change in 
behaviour and the easier it is to improvise. I use the Face Mask as a 
rehearsal technique. Actors pick faces at random and then play the 
text. They often get insights into the nature of the scene in this way, 
and they lose their fear of overacting, which makes many actors appear 

If all the actors hold an identical face, then they accept each other's 
ideas more readily. 

Some students 'can't' make a face. They'll change expression just 
a little, desperately clinging on to their self-image. You can overcome 
this by asking them to make an emotional sound, and then hold the 
face that accompanies it. If you snarl, the face automatically becomes 

It's a simple step from the Face Mask to Executioner Masks or 
'Noses' even for very uptight people. 

Placing the Mind 

The placing of the personality in a particular part of 
the body is cultural. Most Europeans place themselves in the head, 
because they have been taught that they are the brain. In reality of 
course the brain can't feel the concave of the skull, and if we believed 
with Lucretius that the brain was an organ for cooling the blood, we 
would place ourselves somewhere else. The Greeks and Romans were 
in the chest, the Japanese a hand's breath below the navel, Witla 
Indians in the whole body, and even outside it. We only imagine 
ourselves as 'somewhere'. 

Meditation teachers in the East have asked their students to 
practise placing the mind in different parts of the body, or in the 

Universe, as a means of inducing trance. The author of The Cloud of 
Unknowing writes 'Where do I want you to be? Nowhere!' 10 Michael 
Chekhov, a distinguished acting teacher (and friend of Vakhtangov) 
suggested that students should practise moving the mind around as an 
aid to character work. He suggested that they should invent 'imaginary 
bodies' and operate them from 'imaginary centres'. He writes : 

'You are going to imagine that in the same space you occupy with 
your own, real body there exists another body — the imaginary body of 
your character . . . you clothe yourself, as it were, with this body; you 
put it on like a garment. What will be the result of this "masquerade"? 
After a while (or perhaps in a flash!) you will begin to feel and think of 
yourself as another person. . . . 

'Your whole being, psychologically and physically, will be changed — 
I would not hesitate to say even possessed — by the character . . . your 
reasoning mind, however skilful it may be, is apt to leave you cold 
and passive, whereas the imaginary body has the power to appeal 
directly to your will and feelings.' (To the Actor, Harper and Row, 

I suggest that you try out Chekov's suggestion. The effects are 
very strong, and students are amazed at the feelings created in them. 
Chekov says: 

'So long as the centre remains in the middle of your chest (pretend 
it's a few inches deep), you will feel that you are still yourself and in 
full command, only more energetically and harmoniously so, with 
your body approaching an "ideal type". But as soon as you try to shift 
the centre to some other place within or outside your body, you will 
feel that your whole psychological and physical attitude will change, 
just as it changes when you step into an imaginary body. You will 
notice that the centre is able to draw and concentrate your whole being 
into one spot from which your activity emanates and radiates. 

'Try a few experiments for a while. Put a soft, warm, not too 
small centre in the region of your abdomen and you may experience a 
psychology that is self-satisfied, earthy, a bit heavy and even humor- 
ous. Place a tiny, hard centre on the tip of your nose and you will 
become curious, inquisitive, prying and even meddlesome. Move the 
centre to one of your eyes and notice how quickly it seems that you 
have become sly, cunning and perhaps hypocritical. Imagine a big, 
heavy, dull and sloppy centre placed outside the seat of your pants and 
you have a cowardly, not too honest, droll character. A centre located 
a few feet outside your eyes or forehead may invoke the sensation of 
a sharp, penetrating and even a sagacious mind. A warm, hot and even 


fiery centre situated without your heart may awaken in you heroic, 
loving and courageous feelings. 

'You can also imagine a movable centre. Let it sway slowly before 
your forehead and circle your head from time to time, and you will 
sense the psychology of a bewildered person; or let it circle irregularly 
around your whole body, in varying tempos, now going up and now 
sinking down, and the effect will no doubt be one of intoxication.' 

I find it sad that Chekov's work is not continued by more teachers. 
Few actors have really tried it out. In rehearsal it's sometimes been 
perfect for helping an actor to find a 'character'. And its relation to 
Mask work is obvious. 


I ask the actors to dress up as characters. Most put on 
too many clothes. It's quite normal for a student to wear three hats at 
once, believing himself 'original'. I encourage them to take fewer 

A girl puts on a pink tutu. She wears a bus conductor's hat, the 
peak low over her eyes, and one shoe. As soon as she moves she as- 
sumes an aggressive posture, like an angry child. She stops instandy 
and starts to remove the costume. I say, 'You felt something!' She 
replies, 'It was too childish.' I tell her to stop criticising, and to keep 
any costume that makes her feel different. She improvises a scene 
with the costume on and she's very confident, most unlike her usual 
timid self. 

Someone wears a boiler suit stuffed with balloons to make him 
'huge'. He still looks 'himself'. I say, 'Move and imagine that the 
costume is your body surface', and suddenly he becomes a 'fat man'. 

Pretending that the costume is the actual body surface has a 
powerful transforming effect on most people. We all of us have a 'body 
image' which may not be at all the same as our actual body. Some 
people imagine themselves as a blob with bits sticking out, and others 
have a finely articulated body image. Sometimes a person who has 
slimmed will still have, visibly, a 'fat' body image. 

Once students have found transforming costumes I set them to play 
scenes in gibberish, and later in speech. 


If the class act as animals, playing together or clawing 
at each other, or 'mating', very regressed states occur. Playing different 
animals develops movement and voice skills, but it may also unlock 

other personalities. I gradually turn the animals into 'people'. I got 
this idea from Vernon Hickling, one of my first teaching colleagues in 
Battersea, but the idea is ancient. 


I read that small children don't punch each other, but 
'pat', and that the child with the hand nearest the head loses the 
confrontations. I taught this at first as a status exercise. But sometimes 
the result was that the whole class were romping about like big 

Being Handled 

Trance states are likely whenever you abandon control 
of the musculature. Many people can get an incredible 'high' from 
being moved about while they remain relaxed. Pass them round a 
circle, lift them, and (especially) roll them about on a soft surface. For 
some people' it's very liberating, but the movers have to be skilled. 


Scholars have advanced many reasons for the use of 
Masks by the players of the Commedia dell' Arte, but they miss the 
obvious one — that Masks improvise for hours, in an effortless way. It's 
difficult to 'act' a Commedia scenario at any high level of achievement. 
Masks take to it like ducks to water. 

Masks don't fit so well into 'normal' theatre, unless the director 
understands their problems. The technique of 'blocking' the moves 
has to be abandoned, since at first the Masks move where they want 
to, and it's no use getting the designer to work out which Masks are to 
represent which characters. 

The biggest problem is that the Masks refuse to repeat scenes. Even 
when you tell them they are going to take part in a play, they insist on 
being spontaneous. If you force them to act in plays, then they switch 
off, and you are left with the actors pretending to be Masks. 

I now rehearse the Masks away from the text, letting them play 
scenes together, and trying to find a Mask that will more or less fit 
the dialogue. At the same time I rehearse the actor on the text, but 
I don't set the moves, and I'm mainly concerned that he should 
understand it, and learn it. 

When I decide it's time to put the Masks on to the text, I choose a 
scene, and I tell the Masks they're going to act in a play. I stand by 


the mirror and feed the first fine to the Mask as it sees its reflection. 
It then turns away from the mirror, says its fine, and maybe proceeds 
to the next fine. I keep showing it the mirror as I feed it lines, and 
after about half a page we stop and rest. For the actor it will probably 
have been an amazing experience. Everything suddenly becomes 'real' 
and the Mask has quite different reactions from those he'd intended. 

When they come to repeat the scene it's very important to say, 
'Tell yourself that this has never happened to you before.' Everything is 
then OK. Until I learned this last trick the whole business of getting 
fully possessed Masks to function on text seemed insoluble. 

With this technique you can use Masks almost like actors. It's a 
little different, because of course the Masks only know what they have 
'learned' or managed to 'transfer' from the skills of the wearer. If a 
stranger enters the rehearsal room all work will stop while the Masks 
turn to look at him. If a staircase is suddenly introduced the Masks 
may stop in amazement and you realise that they've never met the 
concept of another level before. My play The Last Bird was written for 
a mixture of Masks and people. In one rehearsal of the Copenhagen 
production, the Mask actors suddenly removed the Masks and rolled 
on the floor in hysterical laughter. The script said the Masks were to 
make bird noises, and their lips had absolutely refused to 'whistle'. I 
had to give a 'bird noise' lesson; even so, they never became very good 
at it. 

If you are not happy with the Masks — that is if they seem miscast — 
you can change everything by running the scene with other Masks. 
Everything will now alter, and the 'truths' of the scene will be different. 
In the case of The Last Bird, which was written for two Masks already 
created (Grandfather and the Waif), the original Grandfather mask 
never worked. Finally we used a commercial plastic 'old man' mask. 

Masks aren't 'pretending', they actually undergo the experiences. I 
remember an actress whom I asked to approach a man lying in a 
'wood' to ask him the way. The class were impressed and said her 
performance was very truthful. Then I asked her to repeat the exer- 
cise as a Mask, and everything was transformed. The Mask was afraid 
of being in the 'wood'. It thought the man must be dead and was terri- 
fied to go near him. 

In The Last Bird, Death was to reap the Grandfather. It was a 'good' 
scene, and the actors were working well. But when we tried the scene 
with the Mask, Grandfather stopped doing anything one could recog- 
nise as 'acting' and stared transfixed at the point of the scythe. It was 
just cardboard with aluminium foil covering it, but suddenly it seemed 

the most terrible instrument in the universe. Dick Kajsor, who was 
playing Death, backed off. T can't kill him,' he said, very upset, as we 
all were. It took about an hour before we could try the scene again. 

When I directed the second production of the play (at Aarhus) 
everything was fine until we added the Masks. Then the actors were 
appalled. It seemed impossible that they were to present this play 
night after night when it disturbed them so much. The play is about 
a colonial war, and what had been a game became a monstrous 
reality. Tragedy is horrible when you really experience it. Olivier has 
been reported as saying he doesn't want to do any more of the great 
tragic roles because it's too painful— he'd rather play comedy. 

In the first production Birthe Neumann 'found' the Waif almost im- 
mediately. In the Aarhus production Karen-lis Ahrenkiel could turn 
the Waif on, but the thing wouldn't speak. It seemed desperately 
unhappy, and thrashed its arms around and howled, and didn't want 
anything to do with the text. It was eerie. It was as if it had a deter- 
mination not to do the play because it knew the terrible things that 
were to happen to it— Grandfather dies, the Waif is raped by the 
Executioners, the wings are sawn off the Angel, Jesus sinks when he 
tries to walk on the water, and so on. When we had finally coaxed and 
lured the Waif into performing the part (and at one time I thought I'd 
have to cast someone else), it was a very emotional time. Tears and 
mucus would pour out of the nose holes. Even in performance you 
would hear it howling as it groped off stage during the blackouts. 
Directed with actors, the play would have lost some of this raw emo- 
tion. With Masks it seemed almost cruel to show it to an audience who 
might be expecting museum theatre. 

One of the strangest paradoxes about the Mask is that the actor who 
is magnificent wearing it may be colourless and unconvincing when 
he isn't. This is something obvious to everyone, including the actor 
himself. In the Mask events really happen. The wearers experience 
everything with great vividness. Without the Mask they perpetually 
judge themselves. In time the Mask abilities spill over into the acting, 
but it's a very gradual process. 

My methods make it relatively easy to put character Masks into 
plays, but you won't see good Mask work in the theatre very often. 
Usually the Masks arrive with the costumes — just in time for the dress 
rehearsal, and the actor is expected to wear the Mask designed for him 
irrespective of whether it turns him on or not. In my Mask productions 
I begin rehearsing with fifty or sixty Masks and let the actors discover 
which ones fit the roles in the play. My designers work with the 


actors and assemble the costumes to the Mask's tastes. I've even 
taken the Masks out shopping to choose their costumes in department 
stores— which creates some odd scenes. I don't cast an actor to play a 
Masked role until I know he has the ability to become 'possessed'. If 
necessary I rewrite scenes to fit in with the Mask's requirements. The 
depth of possession during performance depends on the freedom with 
which mirrors are used. In my productions there are usually mirrors 
on stage, and people standing by to present a mirror if a Mask snaps 
its fingers. Some Masks have little mirrors on their person. The style of 
the production has to allow for these' eccentricities. When the Mask is 
used, theatre has to be theatrical, not just a 'slice of life'. 

Once the Masks have learned their roles, and have mastered the 
'This-is-for-the-first-time' trick, then they'll do more or less the 
same thing each performance. It's silly to preset exactly how they 
should move, but similar patterns will always appear. If a moth flies 
in, maybe they'll be momentarily distracted and start chasing it, or 
snapping at it as it flies past, but the actors then assert their control, 
call in a mirror, and set the Mask back on its track again. 

Tragic Masks 

George Devine gave a second Mask class to the 
writers' group, this time showing us the full, or 'Tragic' Mask. These 
Masks cover the whole face and make the wearer feel safe (if he doesn't 
feel claustrophobic) because there's no way his expression can betray 
him. He can't look confused, or embarrassed, or scared, so he isn't. 
Some students find a physical release for the first time when they 
perform with their face covered, and it's usual to improvise with more 
emotion. Thespis was said to have invented tragedy in this way, using 
canvas cloths to cover the actors' faces. I once asked Michel Saint- 
Denis how Copeau, his uncle, came to be interested in Mask work. 11 
He said one of Copeau's students had been wooden and totally lacking 
in absorption; all she worried about was whether the audience was 
admiring her. In desperation Copeau made her repeat the scene with 
a handkerchief in front of her face, and she relaxed, became expressive, 
and was very moving. 

If one of the greatest half Masks of the cinema is Chaplin, then one 
of the greatest full Masks is Garbo. Critics raved about her face: 
'. . . Her face, early called the face of the century, had an extraordin- 
ary plasticity, a mirrorhke quality; people could see in it their own 

conflicts and desires.' (Norman Zierold, Garbo, W. H. Allen, London, 
197°-) People who worked with her noticed that her face didn't change. 
Robert Taylor said: 'The muscles in her face would not move, and yet 
her eyes would express exactly what she needed.' Clarence Brown said: 
'I have seen her change from love to hate and never alter her facial 
expression. I would be somewhat unhappy and take the scene again. 
The expression still would not change. Still unhappy, I would go ahead 
and say "Print it." And when I looked at the print, there it was. The 
eyes told it all. Her face wouldn't change but on the screen would be that 
transition from love to hate.' (Kevin Brownlow, The Parade's Gone By, 
Sphere, 1973.) 

Garbo had a stand-in who was identical to her, and who was said 
to have 'everything that Garbo has except whatever it is Garbo has'. 
What Garbo had was a body that transmitted and received. It was her 
spine that should have been raved about: every vertebra alive and 
separated so that feelings flowed in and out from the centre. She 
responded spontaneously with emotion and warmth, and what she 
felt, the audience felt, yet the information transmitted by the body 
was perceived as emanating from the face. You can watch a marvel- 
lous actor from the back of a big theatre, his face just a microdot on 
the retina, and have the illusion you've seen every tiny expression. 
Such an actor can make a wooden Mask smile, its carved lips tremble, 
its painted brows narrow. 

The reason usually given for the changes of expression that occur 
in Mask work is that the Masks are asymetrical, and that as they move 
about we see different angles. This may be true in a few cases, but if 
you hold a Mask and move it about it won't smile knowingly, or seem 
about to weep, or become filled with terror. It's only when a Mask is 
being worn by a skilled performer that the expression changes. If you 
buy a magazine with full-sized head and shoulders on the cover and 
hold it in front of your face, very few Mask effects occur. If you tear 
the cover off and strap it on your face the magic still won't work. 
Only when you cut the neck and shoulders away, so that the angle 
between this mask and the wearer's body can change with every head 
movement, does it become a 'face'. We 'read' the body, and especially 
the head-neck relationship, but we experience ourselves as reading the 
Mask. If you look at the head-neck relationship in great paintings 
you'll see amazing distortions which increase the emotional effect. 
The angle between head and neck, and neck and body is crucial to 
us. There are reports of crowds panicking with horror when they 
witness public executions; they don't panic when the head is severed, 


but they do when the executioner holds it up and turns it to face the 

crowd. . 

To some extent we can say that the half, or comic, Masks are low 
status, and the full Tragic Masks are high status. If there are two 
different types of Mask experience, then we should expect to find the 
same phenomena in possession cults— and we do. Jane Belo writes: 

'When the manifestations are abandoned and violent, they are 
related to the exhibitions of riotous behaviour which break out at 
cremations and in great crowds, when the habitual decorum is cast 
aside. Other individuals who go into trance may seek a more quiescent 
change, sitting immobile during a ritual sequence until the spirit of 
the god "comes into" them, when they behave as an altered personality, 
demanding and imperious.' (Trance in Bali.) 

The first exercise George set involved an actor sitting in a chair, 
putting on a full Mask with head lowered, and then raising the head as 
if looking into the distance. It was interesting to see how much more 
we did than was asked of us, either because we felt the need to 'act*, 
i e to add something extra, or because we weren't used to doing any- 
thing so simple; hands fumbled unnecessarily, the head wasn't 
brought up smoothly, and it trembled. With the face covered every 
movement of the body was emphasised. 

When a full Mask is absolutely still the spectator stares at the face 
like a person entranced. The art of the full Mask lies in moving the 
Mask in such a way that the attention is never distracted away from the 
face, by the body. This implies a method of acting, a style, that all 
great tragedians master, whether they're wearing a Mask or not— 
Duse for example, and almost certainly Rachel. When the student 
first wears a full Mask his body betrays him, his posture isn't good 
enough, he's hesitant, his 'space' is restricted. When the Mask is still, 
or when it moves smoothly and decisively, or in slow motion, then 
the room seems to fill with power. Invisible ice forms on the walls. 
When the Mask does anything trivial, or moves in a trivial way, the 

power gutters out. , 

Many students believe that the full Mask can only do a limited 
number of things without turning off, but this is because of the 
limitations in the performer's technique. A great Mask actor can do 
anything, and still keep the Mask expressive and 'alive'. In Kuro- 
sawa's Seven Samurai, when the peasants lose heart and start to scatter, 
the leader of the Samurai-that great actor-runs to block their retreat 
Running at full speed with drawn sword, his technique is still that of 
the full Mask. 


George said that learning the full Mask was as difficult as learning 
to sing; that while a half Mask could spring into existence at the first 
moment, the full Mask required a long training. The posture had to 
be right, and the body had to be fully expressive. 

I don't think George ever wrote about his Mask work, and I'm 
embarrassed to be explaining his ideas for him, but I have found an 
account by Jean Dorcy of Mask work at Copeau's school (Ecole de 
Vieux-Colombier) in 1922 (The Mime, Robert Speller, New York, 
1 961). He writes: 

'What happens to the actor who puts on a mask? He is cut off from 
the outer world. The night he deliberately enters allows him first to 
reject everything that hampered him. Then, by an effort of concen- 
tration, to reach a void, a state of un-being. From this moment 
forwards, he will be able to come back to life and to behave in a new 
and truly dramatic way.' 

The Masks that Dorcy used were 'neutral' — 'mime' Masks. I don't 
know at what point the Tragic Mask was introduced, but the tech- 
nique was clearly based on the neutral Mask work. Here's Dorcy 
explaining how he 'shoed' the Mask, i.e. put it on. 

'Here are the rites I followed . . . 

'A. Well seated in the middle of the chair, not leaning against the 
back of the seat. Legs spaced to ensure perfect balance. Feet flat on 
the ground. 

'B. Stretch the right arm horizontally forward, shoulder high; it 
holds the mask, hanging by its elastic. The left hand, also stretched 
out, helps to shoe the mask, thumb holding the chin, index and second 
finger seizing the opening of the mouth. 

'C. Simultaneously, inhale, close the eyes and shoe the mask. 

'In all this only the arms and hands are active. They carry out the 
small movements necessary to fasten the mask on the face, arrange 
the hair, verify the proper adjustment of the elastic so that the mask 
will cling well and hold without slackness. 

'D. Simultaneously, breathe and place forearms and hands on the 
thighs. The arms, as well as the elbows, touch the torso, fingers not 
quite reaching the knees. 

'E. Open the eyes, inhale then, simultaneously, close the eyes, ex- 
hale and bend the head forward. While bending the head, the back 
becomes slightly rounded. In this phase, arms, hands, torso, and head 
are completely relaxed. 

'F. It is here in this position that the clearing of the mind occurs. 
Repeat mentally or utter, if this helps, during the necessary time (2, 


5, io, 25 seconds): "I am not thinking of anything, I am not thinking 
of anything. . . ." 

'If, through nervousness, or because the heart was beating too 
strongly, the "I am not thinking of anything" was ineffective, concen- 
trate on the blackish, grey, steel, saffron, blue, or other shade found 
inside the eye, and extend it indefinitely in thought: almost always, 
this shade blots out conscious thought. 

'G. Simultaneously, inhale and sit upright, then exhale and open 
your eyes. 

'Now the mask actor, sufficiendy recollected, can be inhabited by 
characters, objects, thoughts; he is ready to perform dramatically. 

'This was my method. One of us (Yvonne Galli) achieved this 
clearing of the mind, this preliminary state better and more rapidly. 
Had she another Sesame? I have never asked for her technique. 

'When the actor is not seated but standing, nothing changes; 
however (see 'E'), the back should not be rounded, for the weight of 
the head would draw the torso forward. 

'All these phases are for beginners. Later the technique will be 
altered ' 

Closing your eyes and 'looking' into the darkness of the eyelids is a 
common trance-inducing technique. I used it when I wanted to study 
my hypnagogic imagery. Notice that Dorcy leaves his body alone 
except for those parts which he must move in order to put the Mask 

George set simple scenarios for his actors, and insisted that they 
find a simple, direct way of moving, and that the Mask should be 
presented to the audience. It wasn't good to turn away or to hold the 
Mask at too sharp an angle. Once the technical aspects of a scene had 
been mastered, he asked the actor to invent a tragic background for it. 
A man lifting his head to look at the far horizon might imagine himself 
looking over a battlefield of corpses, or the sea that had drowned his 
sons. George didn't invent the 'given circumstances' and he didn't 
ask what they were. It was a private matter. If the actor was brave 
enough, then he would choose something that was profoundly up- 
setting for him. If so then the Mask would transmit his grief to the 
audience, and would seem to shine with magical intensity. 

I've sometimes checked up on the lighting after a scene, because 
I couldn't believe that a spotlight wasn't focused exacdy where the 
Mask was standing, or a chance beam of sunlight wasn't leaking 
through the blinds. This was the quality that George looked for in the 
full-Mask work, a sort of ethereal radiance— actually I think a 

'Gestalt' separation of figure from ground. An actor would remove a 
Mask, very shaken, and George would say 'Ah! You felt something', 
with approval. Such Masks he referred to as 'inhabited'— possessed 
by the tragic spirit. 

He set exercises involving more than one actor, but the technique 
was always the same. Here are five exercises that he gave out on 
duplicated sheets to a class at the Studio. 

A. A statue—a mourner comes with flowers— on leaving kisses the 
statue's hand — it comes to life — gets down from its pedestal — crushes 
the mourner as if still of stone. 

B. Two very old people dream of themselves as young — he as a 
bird, she as a cat— they play— the cat finally kills the bird. 

C. Two young people in love — in the sunshine — a storm rises — 
she runs away in fright — he makes to go but she returns with a very 
old face on her still young body. 

D. A guilty person is sleepwalking — is visited by a ghost of his or 
her victim — the ghost pursues, sending the victim mad. 

E. A young girl takes poison to avoid a mismarriage — she dies on 
the bed — her mother or nurse comes in and finds her dead. 

George's Masks were stylised faces with an air of sadness about 
them. They were beautiful objects to look at and handle. I used them 
for several years myself until the Theatre asked for them back. 
Eventually someone stole them. 

I saw a film called David some years ago. It was made in 1951, and 
was a Welsh contribution to the Festival of Britain — a documentary 
about the life of a miner, a man called Griffiths, who had always 
longed for education, and who had been injured in the mine and was 
now working as a school caretaker. The part was played by the man 
himself, and at a point when it seemed as if the dreams of the father 
are about to be achieved by the student son, a telegram arrives. We 
see the caretaker scrubbing out the school hall; about one-third of it is 
done. The telegraph boy crosses the hall, gives him the telegraph and 
waits for an answer. The caretaker reads the telegram, which tells 
him of the death of his son; he expresses nothing, or rather does 
nothing in order to express anything. He's changed, but it's impos- 
sible to say how the change has been achieved. Probably his timing 
alters. The boy leaves, and the caretaker returns to his job of scrub- 
bing the other two-thirds of the hall. 

If an actor had played the scene he would almost certainly have 
tried to display his grief. The caretaker, acting out his own story, 
underwent the experience again, and it's not anything I'll ever forget. 


It's difficult to be sure of anything that one saw only once, many years 
ago, but my memory is that it was like a Tragic Mask exercise, and I 
use it as that. A Mask starts some action, the messenger interrupts. 
The Mask reads the message and waves the messenger away, and then 
continues the action. What the message says is for the actor to decide, 
but it has to be something shattering to him. 

Something happens to people in moments of great seriousness. 
When Annigoni was painting the Queen she told him that usually she 
feels like an ordinary woman, but that when she wears the robes of 
state she 'becomes the Queen'. We all know how a wreath should be 
placed on a memorial during a great ceremony: we may have to be 
told where to stand, and when to move forward, but the way we 
move and hold our bodies is instinctive. We know we mustn't do 
anything trivial or repetitive. Our movements will be as simple as 
possible. Our bodies will be straight. We won't hurry. There will be 
a smoothness about us. The people you see standing around after 
mine disasters, or similar tragedies, have a stillness and simplicity of 
movement. They rise in status. They are straighter, they don't make 
little nervous movements — not when the shock is on them — and I 
would guess that they hold eye contacts for longer than normal. 

It is this high-status seriousness which is typical of the full Mask. 
I teach people to be still— if they can!— and I explain the type of 
movements that diminish the power of the Mask, but I also have to 
awaken feelings of grieving and seriousness. In moments of awe, or of 
grief, something takes over the body and tells it what to do, how to 
behave. The personality stops doing all the trivial things that help to 
maintain 'normal consciousness'. Jean Dorcy's technique is clearly 
intended to produce this sort of serious trance state; so was Michel 
Saint-Denis's, and so was George's. A different kind of spirit is 
involved from that which inhabits the half Mask. 

I now have a number of full Masks which I occasionally use, but at 
the moment I prefer 'photo' Masks. These are photographs of faces 
that I cut out of magazines, and stick on to plastic backing so that the 
sweat doesn't ruin them. In some ways these are the most amazing 
Masks I've ever seen, and as they're easy to make you could experi- 
ment yourself. Modern photography is of such high quality that you 
can hardly believe that it's not a face you're watching. Also each Mask 
has its own built-in lighting. People gasp when they see them, and get 
frightened. Sometimes I've had to stop a class because we've all felt 
sick. This happens if you work for a long time, say an hour, during 
which the tensions can become unbearable. 


The students wearing the Masks feel completely safe, since they are 
light, and don't even make the face feel confined. The gasps from the 
onlookers add to the wearer's pleasure. Normally we keep altering 
our faces to reassure other people. The effect is subliminal, but when 
it's missing we can't understand the anxiety created in us. We continu- 
ally reassure people by making unnecessary movements, we twitch, we 
'get comfortable', we move the head about, and so on. When all such 
reassurances are removed we experience the Mask as supernatural. 

I start the actors against the wall which they lean on for support. 
This means that they don't wobble, or shake. It's amazing how few 
people can stand really still; yet nothing is more powerful than 
absolute stillness on a stage. The first Masks I let them try won't have 
eye-holes. Being blind makes the actor feel even safer, on the 'head-in- 
the-sand' principle. I say things like 'Slide along the wall until you 
find the actor playing the scene with you. Freeze. In your own time, 
make a gesture and hold it. Slide down the wall. Huddle together and 
be afraid of us. Always keep the Mask held like a shield between 
your face and us. Laugh at us. Stand up. Get angry. Come towards us. 
Point at someone who has mistreated you. . . .' and so on. 

As the Masks approach the class it's normal to see people scrambling 
out of their chairs to get away. They laugh nervously, but they move. 
If I want to increase the power then I set a scene in which the actors 
work out some fantasy that upsets them. Then they look at the Mask, 
not thinking about it, but remembering the image. If they perform with 
the image of the Mask in the forefront of their minds, then suddenly 
the Mask blazes with power. In the old days actors in the Noh 
Theatre might look at the Mask for an hour. 

When actors insist on 'thinking' about the Mask, I tell them to 
'attend' to it instead. I say, 'Imagine you're in a great forest and you 
hear a sound you can't identify quite close to you. Is it a bear? Is it 
dangerous? The mind goes empty as you stay motionless waiting for 
the sound to be repeated. This mindless listening is like attending to 
a Mask.' This usually works. If you attend to a Mask you'll see it 
start to change — probably because your eyes are getting tired. Don't 
stop these changes. The edges crawl about, it may suddenly seem like a 
real face in your hands. Fine, don't lose the sensation, put the Mask on 
gently and hold the image in your mind. If you lose it, take the Mask off. 

A student at RADA worked out an elegant way of using the photo 
Mask. He had the actors stand in a line facing the audience, and act out 
a play in which a landlord raped a woman who wouldn't pay the rent. 
Each Mask acted in its 'own space'. One Mask knocked at a 'door' and 


another Mask answered a second 'door'. We saw two mimed 'doors', 
but we put them together in the brain. The rape was weird: the land- 
lord tore at the air in front of him, while the girl Mask two places 
away from him defended herself from the imaginary attack. As he 
sank to his knees, she sank back, so that the rape was enacted by 
each person separately. Another class heard about this scene and 
wanted to try it. Their play went wrong, the woman didn't react at all. 
Then we saw that her Mask was disintegrating. It only had a card- 
board backing, and her tears were dissolving it. 

Four more actors tried the scene, but they chose a child Mask for 
the woman, and then the actress knelt down, reducing her height, so 
they decided to make it the rape of a child. The four characters were 
the landlord, child, father, and social worker. They went through the 
scene stage by stage in hideous detail, the landlord finding that Mum 
and Dad were out, getting himself admitted, and so on. The actors 
couldn't see each other, and the timing was often wrong, so that we 
were having to correct the lack of synchronisation as well as the lack 
of space : the landlord was making feeble copulatory movements while 
the child was still being forced to the ground. When the landlord 
panicked he ran on the spot, and then froze. When the father found 
his daughter, the landlord's still figure was unbearable, even though 
he was no longer 'in the scene'. My impression is that everyone was 
weeping, but we couldn't really get the emotion out of us. We 
couldn't really speak, or work. It was as if we had seen the actual event. 

The actors could never have gone so 'deep' and been so serious if it 
wasn't for the protection and anonymity of the Masks. Everyone 
looked white. We agreed to end the class; there really wasn't any way 
to continue. 

You'll understand that these are students I knew very well. At first 
no one will choose really terrible scenes, because secretly they don't 
want to get upset— there's a point beyond which they aren't prepared 
to suffer. As the group becomes more trusting and affectionate, they 
will eventually follow wherever the Tragic Masks lead them. 

I 4 


Many people express alarm about the 'dangers of 
Mask work'. I think this is an expression of the general hostility to 
trance and is unfounded. The 'magical' thinking that underlies the 
fear can be shown by the fact that the presence of a doctor is thought 

to make things OK. One of my first students was a brain surgeon, and 
this made everyone very happy, although he knew no more about Mask 
work than anyone else did. 

People seem to be afraid of three things : (1) that the students will be 
violent; (2) that the students will go 'mad'; (3) that the students will 
refuse to remove the Mask when instructed (a combination of the 
first two). 

It's true that there are many reports of violent and frightening 
'possessions'. Steward Wavell describes a ceremony in which Malayan 
men were riding hobby-horses and becoming possessed by the spirits 
of horses. 

'One centaur had leapt towards a group of women gnashing his 
teeth, pawing at the ground, kicking, snapping and biting, rushing 
backwards and then leaping again. Men rushed forwards to drag the 
centaur back, but his strength was phenomenal. Three times he was 
grabbed and restrained but managed to break himself free. Two of the 
women had fainted. One had been badly bitten. . . . Finally, the old 
pawang, pressing forefinger and thumb on the centaur's temples, gave 
a sharp jerk to the man's head which must have given a severe shock to 
his spinal cord. The man recovered, looked dazed for a while, and the 
dancing continued as if nothing had happened. 

'The headman took the incident as a matter of course. Such out- 
bursts sometimes occurred, he said. It was the bitten girl's fault: she 
should not have been wearing a flower in her hair. A flower on a girl 
was bound to excite any hantu (horse-god).' (Wavell, Butt and Epton, 
Trances, Dutton, 1966.) 

Jane Belo describes 'violence' occurring during Balinese ceremonies. 
A man entered trance while dressed in a 'pig' costume of sugar-cane 
fibre; while incarnating a pig-god he was insulted by someone who 
cried out 'To the market!' The 'pig' attacked, and scattered the crowd. 

'Then the pig turned and leaped down again on to the ground, 
from a height of at least five feet, landed on all fours with as much 
ease as if he'd been all his life a four-footed creature. 

'Still angry, he attacked the overturned stone trough, butting it and 
pushing it along the ground with his head. Men, seeing that he was 
getting out of control, hurried to restrain him. Others brought great 
jars of water which they poured in the centre of the court, making a 

wet and muddy place, sloshy as a pigsty By this time most of the 

fibre covering had come off* him, only the head and snout remaining. 
Someone got close enough to him to tear this off, as they called out, 
"Wallow, wallow!" ' 


The 'pig' went into the mud and rolled about in ecstasy, and then 
a crowd of men grabbed him, 'precipitating a fit of powerful convul- 
sions'. They poured water over him, and as he grew quiet they mas- 
saged him. Then they carried him to the 'sleeping platform' and he 
'woke up'. 

Another example of a 'pig-god' going out of control also resulted 
from an insult. Jane Belo writes: 

'He [the pig] was rubbing himself along the wall of a building on 
which dozens of people were standing. Suddenly he fell over and 
began to cry dreadfully, beating the ground with his legs and arms. 
Five or six men jumped up and tried to hold him. He was defending 
himself fiercely. They put him on the mat and began to massage him, 
but he cried and shouted and had dreadful convulsions. 

'It seemed that one of the children standing on the pavilion had 
spat at him. ... At last he became calmer and fell asleep for a long 
time. There was no feed brought for him and no mud bath, as we saw 
before, I suppose because of this accident. The crowd was very an- 
noyed by the sudden end of it, and all went home. 

'G.N. noted that many people had called out: "Who was that who 
was so very insulting? . . . It's not right for him to come out of trance 
yet, he hasn't had enough of playing. When he's had enough, as soon 
as he's caught, he'll come out of trance." ' 

Such scenes do not take place in Mask classes because we don't 
require them. Notice that in the above examples the 'pigs' remain 
pigs, and the 'horses' are still horses. The violence is completely in 
character, and is approved and expected. The rules are broken, the 
violence occurs, and the group agrees that it's justified. If the violence 
wasn't 'in character' then the performer would be removed. In the 
West Indies people who are really violent, that is, who don't get 
possessed properly, are told to see psychiatrists, just as they would be 
if they acted 'crazily' in any other situation. The 'violence' is part of 
the game. 

Masks can be terrifying but the ability to inspire terror doesn t 
mean they're actually dangerous, not even the cannibal Masks of 
Vancouver Island. Here's Ruth Benedict : 

'That which distinguished the Cannibal was his passion for human 
flesh. His dance was that of a frenzied addict enamoured of the "food" 
that was held before him, a prepared corpse carried on the outstretched 
arms of a woman. On great occasions the Cannibal ate the bodies of 
slaves who had been killed for the purpose.' 

This 'Cannibal' used to bit chunks out of the spectators— an 

interesting example of audience participation: 'Count was kept of the 
mouthfuls of skin the Cannibal had taken from the arms of the on- 
lookers, and he took emetics until he had voided them. He often did 
not swallow them at all.' (Patterns of Culture, Mentor 1946.) 

Obviously this wasn't something the actor went into casually, but 
the cannibalism was planned. It's alarming to hear of people going 
berserk and biting chunks out of people, but such behaviour had 
complete approval, and there's nothing to suggest that the Cannibal 
was out of control. 

Phillip Druckner, in Indians of the Northwest Coast (American 
Museum Science Books, 1963), surmises that the 'corpse' that was 
eaten may have been faked (a bear carcase with a carved head). As to 
the biting of spectators he says : 'This was not a trick, although it is 
said that the dancer actually cut off the skin with a sharp knife con- 
cealed in his hand. The persons to whom this was done were not 
selected at random — it was arranged beforehand that they were to 
allow themselves to be bitten, and they were subsequently rewarded 
with special gifts.' 

It would be easier to argue that it's the Masks who are in danger, 
not the onlookers. Ingrid once put on a Mask and a fur coat at a party 
and someone came up and hit her. Wild Pehrt, an Austrian 'Demon' 
Mask, sometimes got torn to pieces by the onlookers. (There are several 
stone crosses around Salzburg where Wild Pehrts are said to be buried.) 

The violence that occurs is the violence permitted by custom (in a 
way this is true of all violence). Suppose I were to introduce 'handlers' 
whose job was to control anyone who went berserk. Violence would 
then be part of the game, and permitted. Mask teachers get the kind 
of behaviour that they prepare for. 

I was told a horrifying story (in Alberta) of a schoolteacher who got 
her class to make Masks. They put them on, and picked up a boy and 
tried to throw him out of a window: 'Only the timely arrival of a more 
experienced teacher prevented a tragedy.' No doubt by now the story 
has grown to include the mass suicide of the class after raping the 
teacher, but in fact nothing violent seems to have happened at all. 

'Was anyone actually hurt?' I asked. 

'No, thank heavens.' 

'Why did they pick on the boy?' 

'That's the strange thing, he was the most popular boy in the class.' 
'What exactly did the teacher say to them?' 
'She said they were to do exactly what the Masks made them feel 
like doing — ah, and that they were to hate someone.' 


'Did they get the boy out of the window?' 

'Fortunately, the other teacher came in in time.' 

The real story was obviously one of an inexperienced teacher 
panicking. In fact they must have been a nice group of children, since 
they chose to 'hate' the most popular boy. In my schooldays I remem- 
ber boys being hung out of high windows by their ankles. These boys 
didn't even get anyone through the window. No one was trying to 
murder anyone. They had just been given permission to misbehave, 
and that's what they were doing. My advice is that if you understand 
the nature of the transaction between you and the class, and if you go 
into the work gently, Mask work is much less dangerous than, say, 

I did once have a Mask hold up a chair as if it was going to attack 
me. I walked towards it, said 'Take the Mask off', and held the chair 
while the actor took off the Mask. My confidence stemmed from the 
fact that there was no reason why the actor should attack me. He relied 
on my authority to be in a trance in the first place. 

A teacher who is secretly frightened of the Masks will teach himself, 
and his students, to avoid Mask work. I know several teachers who 
say that they'll 'never touch Mask work again', but they won't tell me 
what happened! If anyone had got their arm broken, or had been 
rushed off to a mental hospital, then they'd tell me. What must have 
happened is that the teacher's status suffered. He got himself into a 
situation he couldn't understand or control, and it deeply disturbed 
and embarrassed him. 

I once saw a Mask cut its hand slightly because a mirror it was 
tapping at suddenly smashed. That was my fault for not anticipating 
the danger. I saw a girl hit hard on the bottom by another girl who 
disliked her, and who obviously used the Mask as an excuse— similar 
exploitations of trance states are reported from Haiti. The only 
serious injury I've heard of in a drama class occurred during a 
'method' improvisation (Margaretta D'Arcy broke her arm). I've 
never known physical or mental injury to result from a Mask class. 

Masks may cause physical harm when the teacher is believed to be 
in control, but in fact has been distracted. The Mask may be depend- 
ing on the teacher to say 'Take the Mask off' When the instruction 
doesn't come, as a rule the Mask turns itself off, but it might, I sup- 
pose, make an error, and hit harder than it 'intends'. We have the para- 
dox that the Masks are safest when the teacher is absent, since the 
actors then operate their own controls. 

As for the fear of madness, I would answer that the ability to 

become possessed is a sign of correct social adjustment, and that 
really disturbed people censor themselves out. Either they can't do it, 
or they're too afraid to even try. People who feel themselves at risk 
avoid situations where they feel likely to 'go to pieces'. Compared to 
marriage, appearing on a TV show, family quarrels, playing rugby, 
being fired from one's job or other stressful social experiences, the 
Mask is very gentle and makes few demands. Ordinary people can 
face the death of people they love, or their house burning down, with- 
out having their sanity threatened. The fear that the Mask will some- 
how drive people out of their minds stems from the taboo against 
trance states. 

In a paper on 'The Failure to Eliminate Hypothesis' P. C. Wason 
described an experiment in which students were asked to guess the 
rule that had been used to generate a given series of numbers. One 
student offered no hypothesis at all, but instead developed 'psychotic 
symptoms . . . and had to be removed by ambulance'. No one would 
suggest that Wason shouldn't have continued his experiment, but I'm 
sure that after a similar incident Mask work would have been stopped 
immediately. When a student cracked up during a summer school at 
which I was teaching, everyone went around saying 'What a good job 
she didn't take part in the Mask work'! 

The truth is that in acting class, improvisation class, and Mask class 
we meet opposition from people who believe, in the teeth of all the 
evidence, that emotional abreaction is 'wrong'. Many other cultures 
have encouraged the 'loose upper lip', but we even try to suppress 
grieving. England is full of bereaved people who have never dis- 
charged their grief and who sit around like stones. We are even 
encouraged to hit people when they get hysterical ! 

As for actors refusing to remove the Mask, it's never happened to 
me in the way people mean, although I imagine it could happen. 
There are reports of people in clinical hypnosis who have 'stayed 
asleep' (though not for long!) but we have to ask what people would 
gain from such behaviour. If someone refused to come out of trance 
during a public hypnosis show, then he'd be put in a dressing-room 
to sleep it off, and would miss all the fun. In clinical hypnosis, the 
only purpose of such an action would lie in the opportunity to em- 
barrass and confuse the hypnotist. If the hypnotist remained calm, 
then there'd be no pay-off. In case of any trouble with people refusing 
to remove the Mask, all you'd have to do would be to say 'OK, fine, 
good,' and keep your status. Then the refusal would be pointless. 
Always remember that unless the subject is crazy, or freaked out on 


drugs, then his trance has a purpose, and exists because of the support 
of the teacher and the rest of the class. Go close to the Mask, put your 
arm around its shoulders. Your physical proximity to an entranced 
person usually switches Masks off. 

Sometimes a student will be very upset, and will keep the Mask on 
to hide tears. Put your arm round such people, lead them to the side 
and let them sit down. I remember a man in his fifties who turned 
into a 'monster' and obviously felt extremely violent. He lifted a chair 
in slow motion as if to smash it to the floor. I walked in towards him, 
saying 'It's all right, take the Mask off', and he put the chair down and 
leaned on it for support. I put my arm around him and said 'It's all 
right, it's all right.' He was shaking. (When someone is very upset it 
usually helps to hold them rather firmly— the message you give is that 
you're willing to be close to them and to support them. Patting people 
who are upset isn't really much use. It's more like trying to push them 

Gradually this student relaxed, and then took his Mask off. He 
explained that he'd always felt that he was a gentle person, and that all 
his life he'd been unable to understand how people could do violent 
things; I explained that this Mask always made people feel like that, 
but he was insistent that the feelings were 'his'. I pointed out that he 
couldn't be more violent than the rest of us were, and that we all had 
great extremes of emotion locked away inside us. I added, privately, 
that he should remember the experience, and that maybe he ought to 
change his view of himself a little. Surely it was less lonely to know 
that he was actually just like the rest of us. 

During a weekend course a student went into a very deep trance, 
and became a little old man consumed by paroxysms of lust. He seemed 
to blaze with an inner light. One of the old gods had returned to earth. 
The student was shaken, but quite calm until the other students 
talked to him during lunch and made him appreciate how odd it had 
been. I had to reassure him that he wasn't going crazy and that the 
Mask had been very successful. 

Good drama teaching, of any kind, threatens to alter the personality. 
The better the teacher the more powerful the effects. In any actor 
training we work in the voice and the body, and feelings of 'disinte- 
gration' are likely to occur. I remember asking an actress to mime an 
animal with her eyes shut, and to let her hands just move 'by them- 
selves'. Suddenly she hallucinated a real animal! It's more difficult to 
handle this sort of situation. I told her that it did sometimes happen to 
people, and that it meant she had become very absorbed. At least in 

Mask work you can pass the responsibility over to the Mask. The 
problem is not that one's students really do go crazy, but that they 
may withdraw from work they regard as dangerous. They judge the 
'danger' by the calmness, or jumpiness of the teacher. In reality the 
work is very therapeutic, but in this culture any irrational experience 
gets defined as 'mad'. 

The Mask teacher has to develop a coolness, a therapeutic bland- 
ness. There is nothing his students can do that will surprise or dis- 
concert him. Like a meditation teacher, he conveys the feeling that 
nothing really alarming is happening. If he doesn't project stability 
and confidence, then his students will be frightened away. Here's the 
Zen Master Yasutani talking with a distressed student. 

Student : (Crying) Just about five minutes ago I had a frightful 
experience. Suddenly I felt as though the whole 
universe had crashed into my stomach, and I burst 
out crying. I can't stop crying even now. 
Yasutani: Many strange experiences take place when you do 
zazen, some of them agreeable, some of them, like 
your present one, fearful. But they have no 
particular significance. If you become elated by a 
pleasant occurrence and frightened by a dreadful 
one, such experiences may hinder you. But if you 
don't cling to them such experiences will naturally 
pass away. 
Again, with another student: 

Yasutani : If I were to cut off my hand or my leg, the real I 
would not be decreased one whit. Strictly speaking, 
this body and mind are also you but only a fraction. 
The essence of your true nature is no different from 
that of this stick in front of me or this table or this 
clock — in fact every single object in this universe. 
When you directly experience the truth of this, it 
will be so convincing that you will exclaim 'How 
true!' because not only your brain but all your 
being will participate in this knowledge. 
Student: (Suddenly crying) But I am afraid! I don't know 

what of, but I am afraid ! 
Yasutani : There is nothing to fear. Just deepen and deepen 
the questioning until all your preconceived notions 
of who and what you are vanish, and all at once you 
will realise that the entire universe is no different 


from yourself. You are at a crucial stage. Don't 
retreat— march on! (Kapleau, The Three Pillars of 
Zen, Beacon, 1967.) 
If you were to use Mask work literally as 'therapy', and to try and 
psychoanalyse the content of scenes, then I've no doubt you could 
produce some amazing conflicts, and really screw everyone up. Mask 
work, or any spontaneous acting, can be therapeutic because of 
the intense abreactions involved; but the teacher's job is to keep the 
student safe, and to protect him so that he can regress. 12 This is the 
opposite of the Freudian view that people regress in search of greater 
security. In acting class, students only regress when they feel pro- 
tected by a high-status teacher. 

When the students begin Mask work, and 'characters' inhabit them 
for the first time, it's normal for everything to be extremely grotesque. 
The spirits often seem straight out of the paintings of Hieronymus 
Bosch (Bosch himself acted in plays in which Masks were used). 
Grotesque and frightening things are released as soon as people begin 
to work with spontaneity. Even if a class works on improvisation every 
day for only a week or so, then they start producing very 'sick' scenes : 
they become cannibals pretending to eat each other, and so on. But 
when you give the student permission to explore this material he very 
soon uncovers layers of unsuspected gentleness and tenderness. It is no 
longer sexual feelings and violence that are deeply repressed in this 
culture now, whatever it may have been like in fin-de-siicle Vienna. 
We repress our benevolence and tenderness. 


1. There are other accounts of Chaplin's discovery of Charlie, and I've 
seen an early film in which Chaplin plays 'Charlie' without the moustache, 
but there's no doubt that Chaplin experienced the character as stemming 
from the change in his appearance, rather than from a more intellectual 

2. Nina Epton met a Balincse who told her that before he left to be edu- 
cated in Europe he could 'leap into the other world' of trance in twenty 
seconds, but that even if he can succeed these days it takes at least half an 
hour. (Wavell, Butt and Epton, Trances, Allen and Unwin, 1967.) 

3. The psychologist Wilhelm Reich developed the idea of 'character 
armour', which he said was 'A protection of the ego against external and 
internal dangers. As a protective mechanism which has become chronic 
it can rightly be called armour ... in unpleasurable situations the armour- 
ing increases, in pleasurable situations it decreases. The degree of charac- 
ter mobility, the ability to open up to a situation or to close up against it, 


constitutes the difference between the healthy and the neurotic character 
structure.' (Character Analysis, translated by V. R. Carfagno, Vision 
Press, 1973.) 

He might have been talking about good and bad acting. Drama students 
who are 'tight' and 'inflexible' and 'alone' are able to receive and transmit 
only a very narrow range of feeling. They experience muscle tension as 
'acting'. In The Function of the Orgasm (translated by T. P. Wolfe, 
Panther, 1968), Reich says: 

"The facial expression as a whole — independent of the individual parts 

has to be observed carefully. We know the depressed face of the melan- 
cholic patient. It is peculiar how the expression of flaccidity can be as- 
sociated with a severe chronic tension of the musculature. There are 
people with an always artificially beaming face; there are "stiff" and 
"sagging" cheeks. Usually, the patients are able to find the corresponding 
expression themselves, if the attitude is repeatedly pointed out and de- 
scribed to them, or shown to them by imitating it. One patient with "stiff" 
cheeks said: "My cheeks are as if heavy with tears." Suppressed crying 
easily leads to a masklike stiffness of the facial musculature. At an early 
age, children develop a fear of "faces" which they used to delight in 
making; they are afraid because they are told that if they make a face 
it'll stay that way, and because the very impulses they express in their 
grimaces are impulses for which they are likely to be reprimanded or 
punished. Thus they check these impulses and hold their faces "rigidly 
under control".* 

I remember my own friends 'changing' during their adolescence. One 

grew an RAF moustache and spoke with a phoney officer-type voice 

in adult life he actually became an Air Force officer and got a medal in the 
Suez fiasco. Other friends modelled themselves on sportsmen, or film 
stars, or adults they admired. Props like a walking-stick, a pipe, or an 
individual choice of clothing help to support an identity. If you shave off 
a beard you 'feel' different. A bride in her regalia is supposed to 'become a 
bride'. Oscar Wilde dressed as a convict on Clapham Junction was 
defenceless in a way that he would never have been in his own clothes. 
The appearance, and especially the face fixes the personality. This is why 
plastic surgery has been suggested as a way of reforming criminals— the 
opposite approach to outdated nose-slicing. In Vietnam, terrible burns to 
the body are reported to produce relatively little change in the personality. 
Relatively minor facial burns have severe consequences. 
4. Here is a description by Melvin Powers of how he introduces the 'eye 
test'. It shows the nature of the transaction very clearly. 

'It is suggested to the subject that at the count of three he will be un- 
able to open his eyes. Let's say that you had done this, and that the sub- 
ject, in spite of this suggestion, has opened his eyes. What is to be done? . . . 
He may feel that he is not a good subject, or worse still, that you are not a 
good hypnotist, since he had so easily opened his eyes, when he had been 
challenged to do so. It is at this point . . . that so many hypnotists lose 
their subjects. ... To avoid this: after the subject has closed his eyes, 
continue to give him suggestions that he is in a deep state of relaxation, 
and that as you (the hypnotist) complete a count of three, he, the subject, 


will move deeper and deeper into the ease of the hypnotic state. Begin 
your procedure. Take a great deal of time before you finally use the "eye 
test". ... At this point, give the subject the following suggestions: "When 
I complete the count of three you will open your eyes, and look at the 
crystal ball. Then after I give you the suggestion and when I complete 
the count of three again, you will fall into a very deep, sound hypnotic 
sleep." 1 

If this doesn't work Powers says : 'Should the test fail the first time, or 
even the second, be certain not to show the least sign of annoyance. After 
a pause proceed again in a matter-of-fact and businesslike manner so as 
to ensure the fullest co-operation on the part of the subject. It is very 
important that the subject be made to understand that the failure to close 
the eyes was not an actual test but merely a part of the induction pro- 
cedure. . . . The subject feels that the difficulty lies in the fact that he has 
not as yet been adequately conditioned. This conviction is a much health- 
ier one than the recognition that the hypnosis has been a failure, since he 
isn't aware that he has been exposed to hypnosis at all. . . . Tell him that 
at the next attempt he will be more responsive.' (Advanced Self-Hypnosis, 
Thorsons, 1962.) 

5. Here's a fourteenth-century English meditation teacher describing the 
'one word' technique. He says : 'A naked intention directed to God, and 
himself alone, is wholly sufficient. . . . The shorter the word the better, 
being more like the working of the Spirit. A word like "God" or "Love". 
Choose which you like, or perhaps some other, so long as it is of one 
syllable. And fix this word fast to your heart, so that it is always there come 
what may. It will be your shield and spear in peace and war alike. With 
this word you will hammer the cloud and the darkness about you. With 
this word you will suppress all thought under the cloud of forgetting. So 
much so that if ever you are tempted to think of what it is you are seeking, 
this one word will be sufficient answer. And if you would go on to think 
learnedly about the significance and analysis of that same word, tell 
yourself that you would have it whole, and not in bits and pieces.' (The 
Cloud of Unknowing, translated by Clifton Wolters, Penguin, 1961.) 

Naming everything that you are doing also interferes with the 'voice 
in the head' : 'I am breathing. I am thinking about breathing. I am notic- 
ing a bird. I am feeling the weight of my arm on the chair. . . .' This 
doesn't suppress verbalisation, but it diverts it. 

Dancing to repetitive rythms is trance-inducing. People report that the 
body seems to be moving by itself as they move into the trance state. 
Drummers at possession cults drum louder and with more syncopation in 
order to 'throw people over the edge'. 

Other methods involve weakening the ego by drugs, by increasing the 
excitement so that the subject is emotionally exhausted, by spinning the 
person round and round and inducing giddiness. One method reported 
from the West Indies involves smashing people on the head with a sacred 
brick. When Professor Eysenck says that only such-and-such a percentage 
of the population can enter trance, one wonders if he has really tried all 
the methods. 

6. In clinical hypnosis a reluctance to perform has been observed, but 


this is surely because there's no pay-off. The hypnotist isn't suggesting 
dramatic scenes to play, and there's no audience to reward them. Hilgard 

'I asked a young woman subject who was practising appearing awake 
while hypnotised to examine some interesting objects in a box on a table 
at the far end of the room and to comment to me on them as if she were 
not hypnotised. She was quite reluctant to make this effort, eventually 
starting to do it with a final plea : "Do you really want me to do this? I'll 
do it if you say so." ' 

Another subject of Hilgard said: 'Once I was going to swallow, but I 
decided it wasn't worth the effort. At one point I was trying to decide if 
my legs were crossed, but I couldn't tell, and I didn't quite have the 
initiative to find out.' Another subject said: 'I panic in an open-ended 
situation where I am not given specific directions. I like very definite 
suggestions from the hypnotist.' Hilgard comments: 'Thus the planning 
function, while not entirely lost, is turned over very largely to the hypno- 
tist, willingly and comfortably, with some annoyance being shown when 
the subject is asked to take responsibility for what he has to do.' (Ernest 
R. Hilgard, The Experience of Hypnosis, Harcourt Brace, 1968.) 

7. There's something very odd about the idea that spirits enter at the 
neck. This belief crops up all over the place. For example, here's Ena 
Twigg, a medium, describing how she enters trance. 

'I get a sensation at the back of my neck, right at the top of the spine. 
It's as if there was a blockage. I may be sitting, giving clairaudience or 
clairvoyance, and I feel myself gradually subdued.' 

8. Morton Sobell found that the size of a mirror was very important 
during his years of imprisonment on Alcatraz. 

'On the Rock we had only small five-by-seven-inch shaving-mirrors; 
there were no others. Somehow the size of the mirror seemed to be 
critical in self-recognition, probably because the larger mirror allowed me 
to see my face as a part of my head and my whole body. Ordinarily we 
correlate all these images, because they are all available to us. On the Rock 
this was not true.' (On Doing Time, Charles Scribner, 1974.) 

9. Here are some of Goethe's observations (from his Travels in Italy) on 
the astonishing way Mask behaviour can be reinforced by the crowd. 

'The masks begin to multiply. Young men dressed in the holiday attire 
of the women of the lowest class, exposing an open breast and displaying 
an impudent self-complacency, are mostly the first to be seen. They caress 
the men they meet, allow themselves all familiarities with the women they 
encounter, as being persons the same as themselves, and for the rest do 
whatever humour, wit or wantonness suggests. . . . 

'With rapid steps, declaiming as before a court of justice, an advocate 
pushes through the crowd. He bawls up at the windows, lays hold of 
passers-by masked or unmasked, threatens every person with a process, 
impeaches this man in a long narration with ridiculous crimes and 
specifies to another the list of his debts. He rates the women for their 
coquetries, the girls for the number of their lovers. He appeals by way of 
proof to a book he carries about with him, producing documents as well, 
and setting everything forth with a shrill voice and fluent tongue. When 


you fancy he is at an end he is only beginning, when you think he is leav- 
ing he turns back. He flies at one without addressing him, he seizes hold 
of another who is already past. Should he come across a brother of his 

profession, the folly rises to its height 

'The quakers show themselves in the character of tasteless dandies. 
They hop about on their toes with great agility, and carry about large 
black rings without glass to serve them in the way of opera-glasses, with 
which they peer into every carriage, and gaze up at all windows. Usually 
they make a stiff bow, and, especially on meeting each other, express their 
job by hopping several times straight up into the air, uttering at the same 
time a shrill, piercing, inarticulate cry, in which the consonants "brr" 
prevail. . . . 

'When four or five girls have once caught a man on whom they have 
designs, there is no deliverance for him. The throng prevents his escape, 
and let him turn how he will, the besom is under his nose. To defend 
himself in earnest against such provocations would be a very dangerous 
experiment, seeing the masks are inviolate and under the special pro- 
tection of the watch. . . . 

'No coach passes with impunity, without suffering at the hands of 
some maskers or other. No foot passenger is secure from them. An abbot 
in black dress becomes a target for missiles on all hands; and seeing that 
gypsum and chalk always leave their mark wherever they alight, the 
abbot soon gets spotted all over with white and grey.' (Translated by 
A. J. W. Morrison and Charles Nesbit, G. Bell and Sons.) 

10. 'What I will say is this: See that in no sense you withdraw into 
yourself. And, briefly, I do not want you to be outside or above, behind or 
beside yourself either. 

' "Well," you will say, "where am I to be? Nowhere according to 
you!" And you will be quite right! "Nowhere" is where I want you! Why, 
when you are "nowhere" physically, you are "everywhere" spiritually.' 
(The Cloud of Unknowing — see note 5.) 

11. George had an extract from Saint-Denis's book Theatre: The Redis- 
covery of Style (Theatre Art Books, New York, i960) handed out to his 
students at the studio. Here it is : 'This silent improvisation culminated in 
the use of masks, full-face masks of normal human size, simple and har- 
monious masks representing the four ages of man: the adolescent, the 
adult, mature middle age and old age. In getting the students to wear 
masks, we were not aiming at aesthetic results nor was it our intention to 
revive the art of mime. To us, a mask was a temporary instrument which 
we offered to the curiosity of the young actor, in the hope that it might 
help his concentration, strengthen his inner feelings, diminish his self- 
consciousness, and lead him to develop his powers of outward expression. 

'A mask is a concrete object. When you put it on your face you receive 
from it a strong impulse which you have got to obey. But the mask is also 
an inanimate object which the personality of the actor will bring to life. 
As his inner feelings accumulate behind the mask, so the actor's face re- 
laxes. His body, which is made more expressive by the very immobility of 
the mask, will be brought to action by the strength of inner feeling. 

'Once the actor has acquired the elementary technique that is de- 


manded by wearing a mask, he will begin to realise that masks dislike 
agnation, that they can only be animated by controlled, strong, and 
utterly simple actions which depend upon the richness of the inner life 
within the calm and balanced body of the performer. The mask absorbs 
the actor's personality from which it feeds. It warms his feelings and cools 
his head. It enables the actor to experience, in its most virulent form, the 
chemistry of acting: at the very moment when the actor's feelings are at 
their height, beneath the mask, the urgent necessity of controlling his 
physical actions compels him to detachment and lucidity. 

'Submission to the lesson of the mask enables an actor of talent to 
discover a broad, inspired and objective style of acting. It is a good 
preparatory school for tragedy and drama in its greatest styles. Scenarios 
using up to three actors were drawn from striking dramatic moments in 
classical tragedies and dramas. Further than this silent improvisation 
cannot go.' 

12. I had to comfort someone who was a student of a student of mine — 
neither of whom had been trained; the first had only been in a play I 
directed. She writes: 'My Mask was white and immediately grabbed my 
interest. As I stared I felt my face changing into his, a mildly smiling, 
very open face.' 

She then played a scene together with another, rather frightening Mask. 

'I walked into the closet and shut the door. Immediately my fear 
changed to terror — I was trapped. I knelt down holding the door shut 
tightly, but I knew his form would soon fill the window. I couldn't stand 
that, so just as his coat came into view in a corner of the window I pulled 
my head down. I was screaming. I did so for a long time till finally I felt 
that surely by now my director would have stopped G [the other Mask]. 
As I stepped out I was grabbed by that horrible-faced creature, it was still 
there till finally I ripped my Mask off and screamed, "I'm taking the 
Mask off." I was very happy with my Mask, how simple it was to get into 
(the easiest it's ever been) but very annoyed otherwise. I was annoyed by 
not having someone there who knew enough to save me, my Mask, from 
the fear, from not having someone say "Stop! Take the Mask off. . . ." 
The Mask was very open, and would be anxious to take whatever was 
prepared for it. It was vulnerable. The other Mask fed on its fear. The 
condition was like being hypnotised yet not unaware of surroundings or 
real things but still in the hypnotic state— doing very different things, 
moving, making sounds, freedom to do things in another . . . what? Face? 
State? Can't find the word.' 

She was as upset as if the event had been real. I would agree with her 
that she should have been protected. It's the first time she had worn the 
Mask. If she had been through other emotional scenes, then it might have 
been OK to let her go through it. She would have been upset, but she 
wouldn't have felt hostile. The effect of allowing her to experience the 
'terror" is likely to make her more inhibited, not less. All Mask work should 
be graded. 


The Waif 

Here are some earlier notes also by Ingrid : 

'I'm writing this about two weeks after my first experience with 
the Waif; it seems like I've known her much longer. We've fantasised 
about her past history and believe that she's spent most of her life in an 
orphanage, until one night she played with matches and burned the 
whole place down. Since then she's spent her time rather aimlessly 
collecting things like used contraceptives and old bottle-tops which 
she found in the park. I suppose that the making of relationships with 
other people is going to be one of the turning-points of her life. 

'The first thing she became attached to was a blue balloon which 
she clutches firmly in her sticky fingers. At first she was very shy of 
the other Masks and didn't really know how to make friends. 

'One day she was sent to visit Grandfather, who at that time was 
just known as "the angry man that hit people". When she arrived she 
found a small brown teddy bear lying on the table, which she im- 
mediately became attached to and claimed for herself. At that point 
Grandfather, who had been growling in the background like an old 
rheumatic dog, leaped on the Waif from behind and snatched the 
bear away. This produced loud wailing noises and tears. 

'For the Waif the teddy was perfect— soft, fluffy, something to 
clutch and fumble. Contact with objects made her more secure. 
Having the teddy snatched away was the most violently upsetting 
thing that had happened to her up to that point. 

'I remember Ingrid coming back into focus and feeling real tears 
and terror and thinking "Christ, this is ridiculous— when I take the 
Mask off everyone will see that I've been crying, that I really am 
upset", but I couldn't stop the feelings. It was as if the Waif's experi- 
ence had triggered off a deep emotional response in myself, as if a part 
of me was watching the trauma but could do nothing to stop it. It's 
very difficult to say whether it was "me" that was in a bad state to- 
wards the end, but I'm certain that if I hadn't been wearing the Mask, 
i.e. playing a small girl who had her teddy taken away, I would have 
"felt" nothing, only acted being upset. The Waif could never "act" 
her responses because her emotional life is so real and alive. After this 


Mask session I realised to what extent I'd learned to repress my 
feelings, especially when things make me unhappy. 

'Soon after this Keith arranged a "nice" scene where Grandfather 
returned the teddy. Her happiness at getting it back was equally in- 
tense. And Grandfather became a very important person for her. 

'Loves sweets. Was given a grape and it kept falling out of her 
mouth. She doesn't seem to have any teeth— can only suck, smacking 
tongue and palate together. 

Tt was a long time before she realised she was being watched. She 
didn't seem to mind the audience providing they didn't get too close. 
Keith is a good friend — always seems to recognise his presence and to 
direct some of the things she says to him. I don't get this with other 

'Speech: the "smacking" or "sucking" of her top teeth over bottom 
lip was the first noise she made— as she became more confident her 
favourite noise was "cor". When she was happy she also made a short, 
hard "ha" and "hee" sound. Learning short words like "sit" "stand" 
and "sweet" wasn't difficult, and she was eager to learn. It wasn't 
long before she was able to learn "Mary had a little lamb" but she 
always made up the end to suit herself. She was puzzled by words 
like "fleece" and "bound" and didn't seem able to accept them — 
probably why she made up half the rhyme. 

Mary had a little lamb 
It was white as snow 
And everywhere that Mary went 
She had a little lamb. 
'This was one of her versions, although I'd have to do it with the 
Mask to make sure. She learned to count up to ten before learning the 
rhyme. Her motive I think was because there was an audience, and 
as she is a bit of an exhibitionist, it was nice to do. Being rewarded 
with sweets was also good.' 

Three Dreams 

Some dreams announce themselves as messages. 
There's nothing casual about them. You wake up and they're com- 
pletely vivid in your mind, and you keep thinking about them. Here 
are three such dreams. 

My family are eating rubber eggs and they call me over to eat mine. 
The surface is cracked, and I can see deep into the disgusting interior. 
I put my egg on a high shelf and leave it there; but my family are 
eating theirs, a little slowly but with a pretence of enjoying them. 


A treasure is assembled for me by my teachers. The diamonds are 
glass and the pearls plastic and the gold is tarnished. I stand guard 
over the treasure, until I realise it's junk and go far away. 

There is a box that we are forbidden to open. It contains a great 
serpent and once opened this monster will stream out forever. I lift 
the lid, and for a moment it seems as if the serpent will destroy us ; 
but then it dissipates into thin air, and there, at the bottom of the box, 
is the real treasure.